Economic Pressures Have Maine Loggers Facing Difficult Business Decisions

The Professional Logging Contractor of Maine (PLC), based in Augusta, has been the voice of Maine’s logging industry since 1995. The PLC conducted a survey of its members during the winter in regard to their operating costs. The results of that survey revealed that operational costs have gone up an average of 24% over the last two years—on everything from tires and hydraulic filters, to brake parts and labor. And that’s before the price of diesel fuel doubled to more than $6 a gallon in Maine in just the last year.

Thomas Douglass is one of the PLC members who was surveyed. Douglass estimates the cost of running his business has gone up between 20-30% over the last two years, and especially in the last six months.

Douglass said because of supply chain challenges, local stores no longer seem to carry what they used to, and the wait times to ship the parts are unreliable. “Every day you’re waiting for a part is a day you lost, because you just can’t make it up,” he said.

Dana Doran, Executive Director of the PLC, noted that most mills in Maine are now paying loggers a bonus to offset the cost of fuel, and some are paying slightly more now for fiber. That’s helped, but the volatility is forcing some loggers to leave the industry, scale back their operations or retire.

Dana added that a handful have taken buyouts from a mill that’s starting its own logging crew. “They have either shut down. They have seen employees leave for greener pastures and they haven’t been able to replace them, so they don’t. Or they’ve moved into other occupations. They are trucking other commodities. They might be trucking water or they’re trucking finished lumber.” Or they’re clearing land for developers to build new solar farms, Doran added.

Jim Robbins, who runs a white pine sawmill in Searsmont with his siblings, knows that other mills in Maine are not able to run a complete shift due to the lack of logs and that is of concern to him. Robbins Lumber hasn’t shut down early due to a lack of raw fiber.

“We grow trees really well in the state of Maine,” Robbins says. “But you have to have the people to go out and cut that wood and bring it to the mills. You can have a great lumber mill. But you’re not going to have a great lumbermill if you don’t have the loggers out there to bring that wood to the mills.”

Robbins tries to sell diesel directly to loggers to cover their trucking costs. And he’s paying more now for the logs and fiber that his independent contractors bring to his mill, he said. But operating costs for labor, parts and diesel have gone up for his business as well.

Robbins says he remains hopeful that Maine’s industry is poised for the arrival of new forest products in the coming years, such as wood fiber insulation, which Robbins said should create a greater demand for pulpwood.

Returning to Thomas Douglass, at age 32, he is too young to retire. He says he might sell one of his logging machines that’s sitting in the garage if he can’t find and hire the crews to operate it. But he said he’ll continue to work in the woods despite the challenges.

“I would say it’s surviving, definitely not thriving,” Douglass said of his business. “But surviving and probably just that.” Whatever happens to the forest products industry, Douglass said he hopes it can remain strong enough to eventually entice his young sons into the logging business.

FEA compiles the Wood Markets News from various 3rd party sources to provide readers with the latest news impacting forest product markets. Opinions or views expressed in these articles do not necessarily represent those of FEA.