Logging is a tough business.
In the old days logging meant back-breaking labor with axes and saws — one of the most dangerous jobs on Earth. It still is one of the most dangerous jobs, but also one of the most economically challenging. Axes and saws have given way to hundreds of thousands of dollars in machinery, owned and operated (typically on a long term financing plan) by the people whose lives and livelihoods are on the line.
Independent logging operations in Northern Minnesota suffered through decades of wild price fluctuation as the paper and timber industries lurched awkwardly into the digital age.
In recent years new hope arose for loggers in the form of biofuels. From energy production to new chemical products made from wood fiber, loggers found new customers in these innovative new markets.
But even these new opportunities demonstrate that loggers won’t have it easy.
Jerry Burnes at the Mesabi Daily News reports on a new bill at the state legislature that would reopen long term contracts for the Laurentian Energy Authority, which manages biomass projects at the Hibbing and Virginia municipal power plants. The bill would also apply to other biomass plants around the state.
The biofuel bill is sponsored by State Rep. Jason Metsa (DFL-Virginia) and co-sponsored by other area legislators Reps. Rob Ecklund (DFL-International Falls) and Sandy Layman (R-Grand Rapids). Sens. David Tomassoni (DFL-Chisholm) and Justin Eichorn (R-Grand Rapids) carry the Senate version. Their stated goal is to control costs so that the biomass projects may also use natural gas based on market conditions.
However, Scott Dane of the Associated Contract Loggers and Truckers of Minnesota, argues that the bill breaks a deal that loggers made with the nascent biomass projects on the Iron Range. Dane said if the current contracts aren’t honored as the plants switch to natural gas, many loggers could go out of business.
Dane worried about job attrition from the logging industry if companies are operating with reduced demands, which he said represents an immediate risk to forest management and wildfire prevention.
Simply put, he said, with less timber to take off the market, land managers will be compromised, and public timber sales through the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources will also suffer.
“All of these bills will bankrupt logging companies supplying these facilities and would make it impossible for public and private land management agencies to manage their timber lands,” he added, “since there would be no biomass markets to utilize the unmerchantable and off species.”
The legislators acknowledge that this is a complex issue. Nevertheless, this stands as another reminder of the way natural resources become such a tricky economic engine for regions like ours.