NEK Forest Products Industry Shifts Focus To Regional Markets

06/05/12 7:50AM By John Dillon
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VPR/John Dillon
Joel Currier owns a sawmill in Danville. Currier, who harvests trees from his own property as well as other forests, hopes to tap the emerging market for locally sourced wood products.
The Northeast Kingdom is the remotest part of Vermont, but it's also deeply intertwined in the global economy. Nowhere is this more evident than in the forest products industry.

Many sawmills are dark and the paper companies have left. Furniture manufacturing, once a reliable mainstay of employment, has been decimated because of competition from overseas.

But the region's dense forests still grow valuable trees. And efforts to revive the forest-based economy are now focused on supplying wood for local and regional markets.

Joel Currier of Danville makes a living from the woods. He watches as his electric-powered band saw trimmed the edges off what had been an immense spruce log.

It's an exacting, almost hand-crafted process to make the cuts accurate and to keep the beam straight and true.

"This is another spruce timber," he says. "I believe this is going to turn into an eight by nine that's 32 feet long."

Currier's mill in Danville produces a variety of wood products, from tamarack flooring to red spruce boards destined for guitar tops. Today his mill is making beams for a barn renovation.

"Most of the meat and potatoes of what we do is long timbers," he says. "A lot of the covered bridges in the state of Vermont actually have our timbers in them."

Currier's business is the exception in the battered Northeast Kingdom forest economy. He's found a solid niche with his long timbers and specialty woods, and he's reaching new markets with an on-line presence.

But many sawmills and pulp mills have folded in the face of high costs, decreased demand because of the housing slump, and competition from overseas.

Currier pulls a well-worn ball cap off his head that bears the logo of a mill that closed four years ago.

"Here's one here, Manosh, that's no longer in business. It's pretty much been in the tank," he says. "There's small, as I say, niche markets that are thriving. But in general it's not a good picture."

Essex County Forester Matt Langlais knows the picture all too well. While sawmills suffer and loggers struggle to survive, the region still supplies high-quality saw logs to mills across the border in Canada.

It's still a market for the wood. But Langlais says the log exports mean the Northeast Kingdom doesn't benefit from any value-added manufacturing.

"It's difficult for people in the Kingdom to see the trucks of our forest products rolling right past us into Canada and seeing the lumber turned around and shipped right back to us," he says.

The region has also exported jobs as well as logs. Drive out Route 105 past the village of Island Pond and you'll see an empty shell of the Northeast Kingdom wood economy. Forester Jim Wood stops his truck next to the shuttered plant.

"This is the Ethan Allen furniture plant that was in Island Pond," he says. "Ethan Allen over time basically has closed a number of their plants, and out-sourced and are making that product elsewhere, not in the United States even."

Wood works for the Conservation Fund, which owns 4,800 acres in Essex County. He and a group of other foresters want to bring more money to landowners and loggers by focusing on what they hope is an emerging market for local, sustainably harvested wood.

Wood opens a gate to a logging road to isolated McConnell Pond, in the heart of the Conservation Fund's holding. The black flies hover as Wood explains the idea is to show consumers that wood products are worth more if the trees were harvested with care for the environment.

"And really being able to tell the story where that came from," he says. "You know, right down to saying, okay, this is the person that cut the tree, this is the woodlot it came from."

Their model is Copland Furniture in Bradford which has launched two lines of furniture based on the green-certified concept. The goal is to get everybody involved a piece of the price premium.

"Your logging contractors, your landowners, everybody would make some premium on that product. That, hey, this is a quality product and should cost more in the marketplace," he says. "And is there proof of that to work?  Certainly not. But we're going to try it anyway."

So the Vermont wood industry wants to for do for local forests what the local food movement has done for agriculture. Call it building a Vermont brand based on the terroir of the trees.

Forest and Parks Commissioner Michael Snyder is enthusiastic - but also realistic.

We meet for coffee at the Red Hen Bakery and Café in Middlesex. It's a bustling place, and the bakery proudly sells a line of bread made from wheat grown in the Champlain Valley. Snyder believes the same can be done for wood.

"We want to export it all around the world. But we need to start here where we're meeting local needs with local wood," he says. "And having people understand that just like with food, it matters where your wood comes from."

The concept to certify wood as local and environmentally friendly has been around for more than a decade. But it hasn't yet brought the hoped-for revenue to loggers and landowners.

Snyder says in part there's a classic chicken and egg problem. Consumers need to be aware that there's local, certified wood out there. And businesses have to generate sales to justify their investment.

"So we need people to demand it more," he says.

Snyder says Vermont and the Northeast Kingdom can grow quality hardwood for furniture and other value-added products. He says one first step to rejuvenating the industry is the recently signed "working lands" act.

The law puts forestry on equal footing with agriculture and makes wood-based entrepreneurs and industries eligible for state assistance. That might include marketing, to get the word out that local wood is good.

Tomorrow in part three of Kingdom Comeback, we look at efforts to attract more manufacturing to the Kingdom with the help of foreign investments.  

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