Local loggers feel impact of Verso 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 region-wide.
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 region-wide.
“I learned of the fire that Monday,” said District 3B Representative Caroline McElfatrick, who represents 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 Governor Mark Dayton – from loggers and other businessmen from all over the area whose livelihood included income from doing business either directly or indirectly with the Verso mill.
“The impact of having that mill shut down is much bigger than you might immediately think,” said McElfatrick. “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,” said Bernu.
He asked commissioners to write a letter of support to Governor Dayton asking that the state participate by whatever means possible to help get the Verso mill back up and running. The board unanimously voiced their endorsement of the move.
In the meantime, Senator Tony Lourey, who represents Carlton and Pine counties, said he is working with Bernu and other area land commissioners to put together a list of local loggers whose markets stand to be impacted by the Verso shutdown.
“I think we sometimes underestimate the importance of logging to our area’s economy,” said Lourey. “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 last week’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.”
Governor Dayton has already 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 (TPA) board of directors issued a resolution last Friday, acknowledging that Verso is a valued member of the forest products family in the state of Minnesota and the fact that many TPA members supply wood to the mill and have done so for generations, making it “a strong contributor to the economy of the local community and the many communities where it purchases wood and other goods and services.”
The resolution went on to pledge the support of the organization in helping return the mill to production and encouraged 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 news of 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, which impacted some 30 percent of the demand for wood in the state, dropping from 4.1 million cords to 2.7 million cords.
McElfatrick added that the state has also lost a number of mills in recent years.
“The markets that remain have come to be very important to our local loggers,” she said, once again stressing how important the Verso mill was to many of them.
“These are challenging times for the logging industry,” she concluded. “The loss of the mill could be devastating to loggers. Should their businesses fail, the mill would suffer future challenges with timber supply.”
The Verso mill is still in the process of assessment in order to get a thorough understanding of the extent of the damage done to its paper warehouse and infrastructure, including the electrical system. Though the paper machine was reportedly left undamaged, there is currently no further word on when the mill might expect to be up and running once again.
Bernu said in the meantime 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,” concluded Brandt, “if Verso’s not running, there is less wood being used in the state every day.”