By MICHAEL KRANSZ
Capital News Service
LANSING — Gov. Rick Snyder’s ongoing campaign to increase the value of Michigan’s forest products industry to $20 billion annually by 2018 got a major boost with the recent announcement of a particle board manufacturing plant locating in Grayling.
The plant is touted as the soon-to-be largest of its kind in North America and will bring a $325 million investment and 250 jobs to Michigan when construction is completed in 2018, according to Arauco, the Chilean company in charge of the project.
Andy Such, director of regulatory and environmental policy for the Michigan Manufacturers Association, said the project represents the growth of manufacturing in the forest products sector.
“The particle board plant is a good example of the kind of activity that we’re seeing now,” Such said. “It’s kind of like water dripping on a stone: It takes a while to make an impact, but we’re seeing it.”
In 2013, Snyder outlined goals for the forest products industry at a summit of business leaders, interest groups and government representatives. Among those goals: increase the total economic value of the industry from $14 billion to $20 billion by 2018.
At a forest products summit in late October in East Lansing, it was announced the industry had made it to $17.8 million, more than halfway to the goal, said Bill O’Neill, the Department of Natural Resources Forest Resources Division chief.
Michigan’s forest product industry isn’t just cutting and selling wood. Manufacturing is the largest employer in the sector, O’Neill said.
“A lot of our industry isn’t just harvesting trees, it’s adding value to them,” he said.
Although O’Neill couldn’t provide specifics on how the forest products industry has developed since the 2013 summit, he said manufacturing has been the largest area of growth.
O’Neill said bolstering the industry and maintaining Michigan’s forests for future generations are not mutually exclusive.
“Sustainably managing our forest is our No. 1 goal,” he said. “If we compromise that by expanding the forest products industry, that would be bad. But I don’t foresee that at all.”
Marvin Roberson, the forest policy specialist for the Michigan chapter of the Sierra Club, said manufacturing helps maintain a balance between environmental concerns and growth in the forest products industry by increasing the number of jobs for the amount of wood harvested.
“We think that a vibrant forest products industry in Michigan is a fine thing,” Roberson said.
But some areas are still awaiting that vibrancy. South of a line drawn between Muskegon and Bay City, selling wood to manufacturers is something of a dream for landowners, said Bill Botti, the Michigan Forest Association executive director.
Botti said the closures of two pulp mills in the Lower Peninsula within the last decade gave some landowners only one option to make money off their aging trees: sell them for firewood.
The lack of forest products manufacturing in southern Michigan boils down to distance and volume, Botti said.
“Most of the ownerships are small and the volumes are small, and the distances to the mills would necessarily be longer than they would up north,” he said.
Nonetheless, after the October forest products summit, Botti said he’s optimistic.
“We need to be content with our situation and understand that the expansion will take place in the north where its economically favorable and hopefully it will dribble down to us,” he said.
And maybe that’s not so far off. DNR’s O’Neill said the forests of southern Michigan were discussed during the summit as a potential place for development.
“One of the things that we’ve done over the past couple of years, we’ve asked, ‘Where are there some products that are underutilized and areas for investment?’” he said.
By MICHAEL KRANSZ