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Annual Report | Logging: Forestry, timber industry vital to economy

A high-tech limb stripper is used at a logging site near the Bear Den landing by Kyle Lundberg. Very seldom is a chain saw used in logging operations. Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer

BEMIDJI - The forestry and timber industries have a major impact on the economic success of the northwoods economy, providing nearly 600 people in the area with jobs in addition to providing wood products that are distributed around the world.

"If you cut a dollar worth of stumpage off of Minnesota-owned land it generates $42 of economic impact to the state of Minnesota," Pete Aube, manager of the Potlatch Lumber Mill east of Bemidji.

Aube, who has been in the forestry industry for 32 years, said the wood products produced have not changed, with lumber, paper and oriented strand board (OSB).

The market has always been there and it always will be, he said. But the problem is that there are not enough businesses in the area producing wood products, Aube said.

"We grow three times more than we harvest in this state," Aube said. "We grow a lot of wood in this state and we ought to be producing more and more wood products; producing products close to home and providing living wage jobs right here in the state."

Minnesota's forestry industry takes care of its forests, planting three times more trees than it harvests with more than 487,842 cords of wood planted annually, Aube said.

At example of the state's care for forests can be seen through a blowdown of more than 185,000 acres of trees near Sandstone last year. The trees that were blown down were harvested by local loggers and within three weeks it was back in production.

Without the foresters' care, the downed trees could have been left for a long period of time - which would have had a detrimental effect on the industries that rely on the land.

"We care about the forests as much if not more than anyone because it is our life blood," Aube said.

While the cost of wood has stayed pretty steady over the years, the rising costs of the equipment and the fuel has made the industry struggle. According to a recent study from the Timber Harvest publication, 51 percent of the logging companies in the U.S. are operating at a break-even or profit loss. Associated Contract Loggers and Truckers of Minnesota Executive Director Scott Dane said this is reflected in the state's logging industry as well.

"With a lack of return on investment it really makes it difficult for loggers to be profitable," Dane said.

Aube would not comment about whether Minnesota loggers were feeling the effects mentioned in the Timber Harvest study, but he said the forestry and lumber industries have been essential to the economy of the state and the products will only continue being used.

"It is important to keep the lands productive, keeping markets for mills to provide wood and keeping loggers healthy because they are the management arm of the foresters," Aube said.

According to a study by the Minnesota Forestry Industries, there are 269 employees at area companies Potlatch, Norbord, Cass Forest Products and Pine Products, and more than 350 loggers who help support them.

Aube said like any industry, finding and maintaining a workforce to continue production is always a concern.

"It's kind of like farming," Aube said. "Will the next generation do what I want to do and what's going to keep them doing it? I think the fact that you can make a good living and the fact that the investments that are required will keep people coming to work."

According to the Timber Harvesting and Wood Fiber Operations 2011 survey, 32 percent of the nation's loggers are 51 and older, while 5 percent of the workforce is between the 18 and 30.

"There are some guys that leave the logging industry to go into mining," Dane said. "That is a long-term concern, when you see family businesses not being handed down as they had been for generations."

Aube said the lumber industry impacts people on all levels. It starts with the landowners, whether it be state, county or private land that grow the timber. From there it goes to the loggers who harvest the wood, the truckers who transport the wood and the mills who market and distribute the wood, stretching the impact of a cord of wood well beyond the wood product itself. Aube said that he is starting to see younger faces at the mills and even some younger loggers.

"Of all businesses that are long term, forestry is the longest," Aube said. "When you grow trees you are talking about decades and decades. The mills require millions of dollars in investment for equipment and we need a labor pool that provides long-term stability and consistency."

Aube said the biggest thing he has seen change over the years is the technology that not only the mills are using but also the loggers themselves. Loggers are using expensive equipment that cuts the wood at a much more efficient rate than before, making the job a little less physically taxing and providing much more safety for the loggers.

Dane and Aube agreed that timber is a resource that Minnesota has an abundance of, so much so that there is more being grown than is being cut down.

"Minnesota has an abundance of renewable natural resources in timber and we have more resource right now than we have demand," Dane said.

"We are growing more wood, we ought to be able to employ and create more forest products and employ more people," Aube said. "That is the mindset of the industry and we want that mindset of Minnesotans."