Thursday, March 26, 2009

5 Questions: Old Forge’s Eric Johnson, Northern Logger Editor

Q. How old is The Northern Logger?

A. It started in the 1940s as a newsletter for logging camps in the Adirondacks and around the Northeast. The founder was the Rev. Frank Reed, who wrote Lumberjack Skypilot. He would include things like who’s cooking at what camp, and which camps have TV or radio. It evolved into an independent trade magazine of the Northeastern Loggers Association and today has a paid circulation of 11,000 from Minnesota to Maine and Missouri to Maryland.

Q. How are Adirondack loggers faring in this economy?

A. The forest products industry is a commodities business so it’s always been subject to large ups and downs. People in this industry are accustomed to doing other things when the woods product business goes in the tank. With that said, this is a serious recession; it’s hard to find alternatives.

Q. How does the downturn in housing affect this region?

A. Any building contains a wide variety of forest products, from construction lumber to paneling, flooring to roofing and everything in between. Most of this stuff can be produced from wood grown in the Adirondacks. Lately, higher grade sawlogs used in flooring and cabinets are particularly hurting.

Q. What about the pulp market?

A. People are looking for alternatives to sawlogs to make a living in the woods, and one of them is pulpwood. It’s always been the low-grade product of choice here. The only two pulp mills left in New York State are the Finch mill in Glens Falls and the International Paper mill in Ticonderoga. . . .

A year ago the market for pulpwood was booming. But that’s all changed now. Pulp demand is way down. We’re kind of in a world-wide recession; it cuts into the amount of paper used. It used to be if things were down here you could look to markets in Europe or Asia. Not now.

Q. There’s a lot of hopeful talk about wood as a renewable, carbon-neutral fuel becoming the future of the Adirondack forest products industry.

A. Biomass looked pretty good when oil was $100 a barrel, but it’s probably not going to develop into the thriving enterprise we expected last year.

You get the materials from low-grade wood. There’s been a market for biomass here for decades. For example, Colgate University in Hamilton heats with wood chips. There’s a pellet production plant in Schuyler. And a wood-fired power plant in Lyonsdale.

I think biomass probably is the future. At some point the world is going to run out of oil, and wood is part of an array of renewables such as wind and solar that we’re going to have to turn to. . . . But at the moment it’s not developing as quickly as we thought it would.

There is some help in the stimulus plan for developing wood-based biomass all over the country.

Q. So, really six questions. How are Adirondack loggers surviving?

A. There are local markets for everything — pulp, energy, and logs for sawmills. Still, all of those markets have fallen off.

Loggers have trucks. They have bulldozers. They can build roads. If the capital projects in the stimulus get going a lot of those logging trucks will be converted to gravel trucks. . . . Adirondackers wouldn’t be Adirondackers if they didn’t know how to survive.

It’s kind of been a slow bleed in the Adirondacks for the forest products industry for many years. Once there really was a thriving industry here. You can still see the old plant on the edge of Tupper Lake where they made all kinds of doodads, from spools to clothespins. Now those things are made of plastic and imported. That’s not to say logging doesn’t have a future in the park, but the options are declining. I think the industry will survive in some capacity but it’ll be diminished.

You’ve got to produce something for a region to have economic health. Here in Old Forge there are very few middle class jobs. We have no manufacturing base. It’s a tourist economy. Either you own the business or you’re working for the guy who owns the business. And there’s a pretty big difference.

Interview conducted, edited and condensed by Mary Thill.

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Mary Thill

Mary Thill lives in Saranac Lake and has worked alternately in journalism and Adirondack conservation for three decades.

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