Area loggers feel the heat after Sartell paper mill fireWhen the devastating Memorial Day fire at the Verso Paper Mill in Sartell shut down operations at that plant indefinitely, the ripple effect was felt regionwide.
By: Wendy Johnson, Pine Journal
When the devastating Memorial Day fire at the Verso Paper Mill in Sartell shut down operations at that plant indefinitely, the ripple effect was felt regionwide.
“I learned of the fire that Monday,” said District 3B Representative Caroline McElfatrick, who represents parts of Aitkin and Itasca counties, “and by that Thursday I was already hearing from loggers all over the area, expressing their concern about the situation and their need for the mill to re-open and continue operation. Though the distance is significant, loggers from a very wide region in northern Minnesota depend on the mill as a customer for their timber. “
Since that time, McElfatrick said she has received 75 communications — all of which she forwarded to the office of Gov. Mark Dayton — from loggers and other businesspeople in northern Minnesota who rely on the Verso mill.
“The impact of having that mill shut down is much bigger than you might immediately think,” McElfatrick said. “It not only impacts the community of Sartell and the loggers who sold their timber there, but equipment dealers and maintenance technicians, fuel suppliers and even the insurance guy who handles the policies for the loggers.”
In a report to the Carlton County Board on Tuesday, land supervisor Greg Bernu told commissioners that he has been in contact with McElfatrick and others regarding the plight of the local loggers as the result of the fire at Verso.
“A fair share of our local loggers used to send logs to that mill,” Bernu said.
He asked commissioners to write to Dayton asking that the state help get the Verso mill back up and running. The board unanimously voiced their endorsement of the move.
In the meantime, state Sen. Tony Lourey, who represents parts of Carlton and Pine counties, said he is working with Bernu and other area commissioners to put together a list of local loggers who could be affected by the Verso shutdown.
“I think we sometimes underestimate the importance of logging to our area’s economy,” Lourey said. “We want to make sure we maintain all the markets we can and do what we can to support the industry.”
Lourey went on to add that this month’s groundbreaking for the latest conversion project at Sappi’s Cloquet mill “drives home how important the success of this industry is to all of us.”
Dayton already has pledged his support in helping the Sartell mill to become operational again.
“The state of Minnesota will do everything it possibly can to get this plant operating again as soon as possible and protect the jobs that are there and vitally important to Sartell and the area,” Dayton said. “The fact that [Verso] is in some difficulty right now is of concern to me.”
Likewise, the Minnesota Timber Producers Association board of directors issued a resolution earlier this month, pledging the support of the organization in helping to return the mill to production and encouraging local, state and national leaders in both the public and private sectors to support Verso in its efforts to get back on its feet again.
“We are concerned about the status of the forest industry,” said Wayne Brandt, executive vice president of the TPA, “particularly Carlton County and the surrounding region, since Verso has always drawn a lot of wood from that area and has been an important market for loggers there.”
Brandt said the Verso fire comes as particularly bad news for loggers on the heels of the downturn on the housing side of the forest industries market in 2006, 2007 and 2008. Demand for wood in the state dropped more than 30 percent, from 4.1 million cords to 2.7 million cords.
McElfatrick added that the state also has lost a number of other mills in recent years.
“The markets that remain have come to be very important to our local loggers,” she said.
“These are challenging times for the logging industry,” she added. “The loss of the mill could be devastating to loggers. Should their businesses fail, the mill would suffer future challenges with timber supply.”
Verso mill officials still are in the process of assessing the damage done to the paper warehouse and infrastructure, including the electrical system. Though the paper machine reportedly was left undamaged, there has been no further word on when the mill might expect to be up and running again.
In the meantime, Bernu said, some of the other mills in northern Minnesota have offered to buy up some of the excess inventory of the loggers who counted on Verso as one of their markets.
“At the end of the day,” Brandt said, “if Verso’s not running, there is less wood being used in the state every day.”