What’s Next for Maine’s Forests? Mill Town and Statewide Community Perspectives on the Value, Management, and Future of Maine Forests

Julia B. McGuire,1 Jessica E. Leahy,2 Mindy S. Crandall,3 James A. Marciano,4 Robert J. Lilieholm5

1 Postdoctoral Research Associate, School of Forest Resources, University of Maine
2 Associate Professor, School of Forest Resources, University of Maine
3 Assistant Professor of Forest Management and Economics, School of Forest Resources, University of Maine
4 M.S. Graduate, School of Forest Resources, University of Maine
5 E.L. Giddings Professor of Forest Policy (Retired), School of Forest Resources, University of Maine


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Maine’s Changing Forests and Forest Products Industry

At near 90% forest cover, Maine is one of the most forested states in the U.S. (McCaskill et al. 2011). This plentiful natural resource and the forest products industry that capitalizes on those resources have been integral to the economic and social identity of Maine for centuries (Judd 2007). However, Maine’s forests and the people and industries that rely upon them are undergoing rapid change (Ohm 2016). These changes are a result of myriad causes and have different effects across the state.

The forest products industry has undergone significant transformation, with fewer, larger processors and, in recent years, significant shutdowns and mill closures due to global and national economic and technological factors, including manufacturing increasingly moving to other countries and the U.S. recession (Lilieholm et al. 2009, Anderson and Crandall 2016). In southern Maine, coastal areas, and along rivers and lakes, development pressures from residential and second homes have fragmented forests and significantly reduced forest cover (Bell 2007). As a result, state and regional proposals to protect lands from development (Foster et al. 2010, Foster et al. 2012, Lilieholm et al. 2010, New England Governors Conference 2009, Wiersma 2009) and preserve natural areas have gained traction (Foster et al. 2010, Foster et al. 2012).

Over the last few decades, industrial forest holdings have been greatly reduced, replaced by a host of landowners such as timber investment management organizations (TIMOs) and real estate investment trusts (REITs) (Hagan et al. 2005, Lilieholm 2007). Shifts in ownership have impacted the physical and socio-cultural landscape of Maine forests. Historically, forest products companies supported a culture of open land use on their large tracts of private land (Acheson and Acheson 2009, Lilieholm 2007). Fragmentation of the landscape has resulted in multiple new owners with different ideas about private property, which has increased the disruption of Maine’s open land use traditions (Acheson and Acheson 2009, Lilieholm 2007).

At a broader scale, concerns over fossil fuels and global climate change present a host of challenges and opportunities for forests, communities, and the forest products sector (Bilodeau et al. 2009). In the 1970s and more recently, the mid-2000s, record-high fuel prices spurred interest in forest-based biofuel and bioproducts innovation. Currently, interest in biomass remains strong as a way to support low-value wood markets (Fishell 2016). From forest protection to innovative new wood markets, there are a diversity of opportunities for Maine’s forests and forest products sector. However, there is long-standing concern and controversy about how the state’s large and less-populated North Woods should or should not be used.

In 2007, a public outcry arose when the Plum Creek Timber Company, Inc. (Plum Creek) proposed rezoning of thousands of acres near Greenville, Maine, and the Maine Land Use Regulatory Commission (LURC) held a series of public hearings to allow citizens to air concerns about and support for the proposal (Anderson et al. 2012). Controversy began again in August 2016, when President Obama designated 87,500 acres of formerly privately owned land near Mount Katahdin and Baxter State Park as the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument (NPS 2016, Sharon 2016). Residents supported protecting the land, and it generated excitement about potential opportunity for economic innovation through tourism in Maine’s woods and waterways (Critical Insights 2015). However, the polls that demonstrated majority support for land protection did not address the importance that historical use of forestland plays in the identity of Mainers.

“The juxtaposition of five forest products mill closures in the last two years (Ohm 2016) and the controversy around Plum Creek and the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument provides an opportunity to improve strategic, inclusive decision-making about Maine’s forest resources and investment in forest-dependent communities.”

Maine’s forests are 95 percent privately owned, and the forest products industry has historically controlled much of this land. Maine residents have long used this private land as a common-property natural resource, leading to a strong sense of shared value and ownership around management of the state’s forests (Acheson and Acheson 2009, Judd 2007). Despite the potential economic opportunities that the national monument provides, many residents of nearby communities expressed anger and concern over this perceived top-down, federal decision about forests that they considered their generational, common inheritance (Pérez-Peña 2016, Sambides 2016).

The juxtaposition of five forest products mill closures in the last two years (Ohm 2016) and the controversy around Plum Creek and the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument provides an opportunity to improve strategic, inclusive decision-making about Maine’s forest resources and investment in forest-dependent communities. The controversy around the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument is not a singular example. Research demonstrates a need to understand public values and perceptions, and engage people in the decision-making process before an issue becomes a political controversy (Anderson et al. 2012, van der Horst 2007, Wester-Herber 2004). Maine is in a critical transition period where decreases in forest products industry employment have left many residents and communities wondering what’s next. The key to successful rural development may lie in understanding the values, views of forest management, and trusted sources of information for current and former mill communities and for the Maine public. If innovative wood markets are developed, such as biofuels or nanocellulosic products, will Maine residents support this forest products industry shift? Addressing this question requires a diverse portfolio of forest-based economic, environmental, and social answers, and the intersection of collaborative forest bioproducts research and development could provide one answer.


Forest Bioproducts Research Institute

In 2006, the University of Maine was awarded a grant from the National Science Foundation’s Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (NSF EPSCoR), “Investing in Maine Research Infrastructure: Sustainable Forest Bioproducts.” This grant was supplemented with significant matching funds from the Maine Economic Improvement Fund in recognition of the importance of forests to the state. Funding supported the creation of the Forest Bioproducts Research Institute (FBRI) to promote forest health for a stable bioeconomy (natural resource-based economy), by understanding and separating wood components, and creating and commercializing new bioproducts. An NSF Sustainable Energy Pathways (SEP) Program award supported multi-disciplinary research, including our survey of Maine households to better understand residents’ views towards forests, forest practices, and the forest products industry. FBRI is now working to move its scientific results from a diverse array of projects into action. One action that FBRI hopes to move forward is a biorefinery that will turn wood components into products like biodiesel, or plastics, typically made from petroleum.

The public’s concerns and values will need to play a central role in decision-making in order to successfully turn scientific knowledge and results into bioproducts (Burningham and Thrush 2004, Lee et al. 2015, Upreti 2004, van der Horst 2007). Place-based values may play a significant role in project support or opposition (van der Horst 2007, Wester-Herber 2004). Transparency and site-specific communication to address community concerns about biorefineries may decrease the likelihood of project opposition (Upreti 2004, van der Horst 2007). Our survey of Maine residents contributes important insights for moving toward successful forest bioproducts development to provide diversified economic, environmental, and social opportunities for Maine communities.


Survey Description

We mailed 3,000 surveys to two Maine populations: (1) a “Statewide” sample; and (2) a “Mill Town” sample that included households within a 10-mile radius of the 10 pulp and paper processing facilities active in 2010. We mailed surveys to at least 125 households in each of the Mill Towns. It is likely that forest-based biorefineries would be co-located with pulp and paper mills (Dickerson and Rubin 2008, Benjamin et al. 2009), and resident attitudes in Mill Town communities are particularly important in evaluating the acceptability of and support for future projects. We excluded the Mill Towns from the Statewide results. Our response rate was 42% for Mill Towns and 41% for the Statewide sample.

We did not survey residents under the age of 18, which may account for our older median age of respondents, 55 years, as compared to the state average of 42 years. Respondents were mostly male and had high levels of education. We asked respondents to select one of ten income brackets based on their total household income. The majority of Statewide respondents’ incomes fell within the $50,000 to $74,999 bracket and the majority of Mill Town respondents fell into the $35,000 to $49,999 bracket. The 2008 median household income for Maine was $46,581, which fell within the Mill Towns’ most-common household income bracket, and was below the most common bracket of our Statewide sample (U.S. Census ACS 2008). Nearly 90 percent of both samples owned homes, and on average, respondents had lived in their communities for long periods of time (Statewide: 27 years; Mill Towns: 33 years). We found that 41 percent of our Mill Town respondents were currently or had been employed by the forest products industry compared to 13 percent of our Statewide respondents.


The Value and Management of Maine Forest Resources

We asked Mill Town and Statewide respondents to rank in order of importance five Maine forest uses (Table 1). Respondents considered Maine forests to be important sources of environmental and economic value. Mill Town and Statewide respondents saw the protection of water, air and soil to be the most important function of Maine forests, and both groups ranked the use of forests to support plants and animals as very important. There was a significant difference between Mill Town and Statewide respondents’ views of Maine forests as a source of economic wealth, and Mill Town residents considered forests to be more important than Statewide respondents (Marciano 2013). About one-fifth of Mill Town residents considered Maine forests to be an important source of economic wealth, whereas one-third did not consider forests to be a source of wealth. The majority of Statewide residents did not see the Maine forests as important sources of economic wealth.

Respondents’ viewed forests as a source of protection for environmental resources, which was reflected by their responses to our question regarding important forest management objectives (Table 2). Both populations highly ranked the management of forests to maintain water quality, wildlife populations, soil nutrients, and wood supplies for the forest products industry (Table 1). There was a significant difference between Mill Town and Statewide respondents’ views of the importance of maintaining forest productivity to ensure wood supplies to the forest products industry. It was an important objective for both populations, though more so for Mill Town respondents.


Table 1. Respondents’ rankings of the importance of Maine’s forest uses


Table 2. Respondents’ ratings of forest management objectives


The Future of Maine’s Forest Products Industry

The shifting role of the forest products industry in the state may have contributed to varied perspectives of the future importance of the industry. About one-fifth of both populations believed that the industry would increase in importance, over one-third of both samples thought it would remain constant, and just under one-third of respondents thought it would decrease in importance (Marciano 2013). This variation could be a result of relatively low knowledge about emerging technologies in the industry, such as biorefineries, and the diversity of products that a biorefinery could produce. We found that about one-quarter (Mill Town) to one-third (Statewide) of respondents had not heard of biorefineries, and another third had heard of them, but were unclear about what they do (Marciano 2013). Through community engagement, this uncertainty surrounding biofuels is important to address, as FBRI and other organizations begin steps toward commercialization and biorefinery facility proposals. One facility could produce a variety of bioproducts, and some valuable industrial chemicals may be byproducts generated during the same process. This is a significant departure from Maine’s long-standing “wood-in-paper-out” forest products model, and it will need to be better explained to the public.

With this in mind, we sought to understand respondents’ perspectives about expanding the types of wood-derived products. Both populations expressed a preference for the benefits of expanding wood-derived medicines and pharmaceuticals (Table 3). Mill Town residents considered wood pellet production for heating to also be highly beneficial, and Statewide respondents considered it significantly less so. Both groups considered bio-plastics and electricity generation to be generally beneficial. There was greater within-group disagreement about the benefits of various biofuels, especially ethanol and biodiesel (Figure 1). Public concerns about ethanol production are well documented (Delshad et al. 2010; Johnson et al 2011; Mohr and Raman 2013), and may have affected this disagreement about the potential benefits of biofuels.


Table 3. Respondents’ views of benefits from sustainably harvested Maine wood bioproducts


Figure 1. Respondent support for gasoline and diesel substitutes



Public support for facility siting has played a key role in the success or failure of other bioenergy facilities (van der Horst 2007), and likewise the Maine public’s support will be important for biorefinery success (Marciano 2013). A recent study found that biomass-based economic development in rural communities faces significant challenges, and may depend on subsidies, new markets, technological innovation, and production of high-value forest bioproducts (Crandall 2017). The likelihood of success of a new bioproducts industry will require further collaboration, innovation, and significant public engagement.

The process toward commercialization and facility siting may also depend on the involvement of trusted sources of information (Savvanidou et al. 2010; Van de Velde 2011). Respondents considered the University of Maine’s School of Forest Resources to be the most credible source of information. University of Maine researchers and the Maine Forest Service were considered very credible, as was the U.S. Forest Service. The forest products industry was also considered credible, and Mill Town respondents considered it significantly more credible than Statewide respondents. Environmental and business groups were both considered less credible, and Mill Towns considered environmental groups significantly less credible (Table 4). Both groups considered the media the least credible source of information.


Table 4. Respondents’ ratings of credibility of forest products industry information sources


Discussion and Conclusions

Our objective was to understand how Mill Town and Statewide residents’ values, views of forest management, and perception of credible sources of information might play a role in Mainers’ support for biorefineries and their products. This research provides one perspective on the question, “what’s next for Maine forests?” as well as critical input for policymakers and organizations hoping to attract biorefinery investment in Maine. Our results suggest that Mainers value forests, and research suggests that values matter in environmental, forest, and energy policy (Anderson et al. 2012, van der Horst 2007, Wester-Herber 2004).

Mill Town and Statewide respondents considered the protection of water, air and soil to be the most important function of Maine forests. Respondents also highly valued the use of forests to support plants and animals. Both groups rated most highly managing forests to maintain water quality, wildlife populations, soil nutrients, and wood supplies for the forest products industry. Mill Town respondents considered managing forests for wood supplies for the forest products industry significantly more important than Statewide respondents. A proposed facility siting that is perceived to impact water or air quality, soil health, or compete with current industry wood supply could face public opposition. In Mill Towns, the impact of a biorefinery on wood supplies critical for forest products industry uses would be an important factor to discuss.

“The divisive opinions and controversy around the Plum Creek rezoning proposal and the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument provides critical context for the role that values play in forest management and policy processes. In both cases there was a feeling that people “from away,” or outside of the Maine and local communities, were driving the process.”

Our results suggest that residents have a strong sense of place and community identity, as respondents from both populations had lived in their communities for two to three decades, on average. There is evidence in the literature that place-based identity, and the industrial legacy of a location plays a role in the likelihood of energy facility siting controversy (Devine-Wright 2011; Devine-Wright and Howes 2010, Upreti 2004, van der Horst 2007, Wester-Herber 2004). These results could provide researchers and policymakers a starting point for a discussion around the impacts of a biorefinery on forest resources that Mill Town and Statewide residents value. Transparency in early proposal stages may avoid facility site failures due to public opposition, many examples of which have been well documented in the literature (Upreti 2004, van der Horst 2007).

The divisive opinions and controversy around the Plum Creek rezoning proposal and the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument provides critical context for the role that values play in forest management and policy processes. In both cases there was a feeling that people “from away,” or outside of the Maine and local communities, were driving the process (Anderson et al 2012, Pérez-Peña 2016, Sambides 2016). This suggests that for a biorefinery proposal or siting process, community engagement is most effective if led by credible sources of information from Maine. Despite increasing politicization and shifting levels of trust in science (Gauchat 2012), our results suggest that the University of Maine is trusted and respected source of credible information for both populations.

Our respondents considered the University of Maine School of Forest Resources, researchers, and state forest service to be the most credible sources of information about the forest products industry. Mill Towns also regarded the forest products industry as a credible source of industry information. Our results provide an opportunity for these trusted groups to take a transparent leadership role in community development of biorefineries, including a discussion about values, forest management, and biorefinery products.

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Biorefineries can make a diverse array of products, some simultaneously. Mill Town and Statewide residents expressed a preference for biorefinery production of medicines and pharmaceuticals, and there was disagreement within each sample about the benefits of producing bio-fuels. This disagreement may be due to well-publicized concerns about ethanol (Delshad et al. 2010, Johnson et al 2011, Mohr and Raman 2013). Biofuels will likely be an important biorefinery product in Maine, and addressing public concerns and uncertainty early in the commercialization process will be important (Pendse et al. 2012). The institutions and groups that respondents considered credible have an opportunity to listen to these concerns to help the public understand what a biorefinery is, what it might produce, and the potential socio-economic tradeoffs of bioproducts manufacturing.

As respected voices, researchers at the University of Maine can help the public to understand our commitment to a research cycle that does not stop at peer reviewed journal articles, but becomes a part of an actionable and engaged process toward solutions. Collaborative FBRI research has grown social capital in the form of networks of cross-disciplinary researchers, industry representatives, non-governmental organizations, and state partners. In the next steps toward commercialization of products, and eventually toward facility siting, these trusted organizations and individuals could take the lead in a process to engage mill town communities and the general public in a discussion about biorefineries. Public hearings were a common approach in the Plum Creek and Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument process, but by the time they were held there was already significant opposition to the proposals.

“Early engagement may help reveal yet unknown issues and opportunities for the communities that care deeply about Maine forests, and in the process build social and economic wealth.”

Our respondents expressed concerns and hopes that could provide the foundation for community information and listening sessions prior to a site proposal. There are examples of successful inclusion of public participation in forest resources decision-making, such as consensus-based stakeholder workshops, and acknowledgement, respect, and inclusion of stakeholders’ local knowledge in the decision-making process (Hampton et al. 2011, Lyons et al. 2014). Early engagement may help reveal yet unknown issues and opportunities for the communities that care deeply about Maine forests, and in the process build social and economic wealth. Many of our rural communities have been built upon the forest products industry, and they have a stake in and should have a voice in decisions about the future of Maine forests. Through a collaborative, transparent process, Maine has a promising future for a diverse and healthy forest products industry that is dynamic, innovative, and sustainable for communities and our valued natural resources.


Acknowledgement of Funding Sources

This research was supported by the University of Maine’s Forest Bioproducts Research Initiative (National Science Foundation Grant No. EPS-0554545), the SEP Integrated National Framework for Cellulosic Drop-in Fuels (National Science Foundation Grant No. EPS-1230908), and the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture McIntire-Stennis program through the Maine Agricultural and Forest Experiment Station.



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