Federal lawmakers representing states with large forest resources have introduced bipartisan legislation to provide relief to logging-related businesses that have been seriously impacted by COVID-19 and the resulting economic crisis.

U.S. Sens. Tina Smith, D-Minn., and Susan Collins, R-Maine, introduced a bill two weeks ago that would establish a new program at the U.S. Department of Agriculture to provide direct payments to timber harvesting and hauling businesses that can demonstrate they have experienced significant economic hardship compared to the previous year, said a news release from Smith’s office.

The bill is also supported by Sen. Angus King, I-Maine. A House companion bill was introduced by Congressmen Jared Golden, Maine-02, and David Rouzer, N.C.-07.

The logging industry has experienced a steep decline in demand for wood fiber since the coronavirus pandemic began, leading to an estimated 20 percent or more drop in the timber harvest this year, Smith said.

Local support

Minnesota Rep. Rob Ecklund said he’s hopeful the bill with be passed and provide even a little economic relief for workers in the logging community.

“They’re not asking for a huge amount, not compared to what’s been given to other industries, but it would be huge for the forest products industry,” he said.

Ecklund pointed to the closure of the Verso paper mill in Duluth, idled indefinitely in late June, which resulted in the layoffs of a majority of the 225 workers there. The company said it idled the mill for what it called “unprecedented” market decline due to COVID-19.

“I am sure things like that are happening in other states, with sawmills and paper mills,” Ecklund said.

Ecklund said he’s talked to Mike Birkland from the Timber Producers Association, and the group is optimistic about the bill, saying it would be helpful, especially with Verso shutting down.

In addition, Ecklund said loggers are concerned about the general decline in the industry. “It’s a big thing,” he said.

The pandemic is among the most recent challenges facing the logging community in recent years. In June, Minnesota Public Radio reported that about a third of the state’s logging businesses have gone out of business in the past few years, leaving about 1,500 loggers still working. With the closure of six wood-processing plants in the past five years, timber consumption in the state has dropped about a third since the early 2000s, according to the Minnesota Timber Producers Association.

Relief should come from the federal government, Ecklund said.

“We can’t print money at the state, but the federal government can,” he said. “So if the fed can print a little more money, it sure would help the district.”

Meanwhile, Ecklund said the concern about the impact of the pandemic on the logging community should make clear serious results of COVID-19.

“People need to mask up,” he said.

He said he’s hearing people in Cook County, also a large draw for tourists, are all wearing masks, and businesses are not allowing people in until the No. 6 person leaves, based on the governor’s order.

Cook County had two positive cases, an no deaths related to COVID-19, as of Tuesday; Koochiching County had 74, and three deaths, total since April 1.

“Now, look at Koochiching County,” he said. “We are the top 17th in the state per capita and that’s not a good place to be when we’re talking about opening schools,” he said.

“People really need to take this seriously here, and so far they have not,” he said.

Relief bill

Meanwhile, Smith said passage of the bill would support Minnesota’s diverse timber industry during the downturn caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

“This bipartisan legislation will provide critical relief to loggers and timber trucking businesses whose revenues have suffered during this unprecedented time,” she said in a statement. “For the sake of Minnesota forest products, and the jobs they support, we need to move this bill forward.”

Collins said Maine’s history has included the forest products industry, with its created good-paying jobs, driving local economies, and sustaining rural communities.

“This industry was already facing significant headwinds due to a changing 21st century economy and unfair trade practices, as well as the explosion at the Androscoggin Mill in Jay and the shutdown of the paper machine at Sappi in Westbrook, she said. “COVID-19 has only compounded these challenges. Maine’s family logging and log hauling businesses need our support. Our bipartisan bill would provide critical financial assistance to the skilled professionals who work in this industry to help them get through this difficult period.”

The program envisioned in the bill is modeled after the USDA’s Coronavirus Food Assistance Program, which has been providing direct relief to growers and producers experiencing dramatic drops in prices and overall business activity due to the pandemic. Specifically, the legislation would direct the Secretary of Agriculture to provide payments to eligible logging businesses that have experienced at least a 10 percent loss in revenues from January through July 2020 as compared to the same time frame last year. Those who qualify would receive direct payments equal to 10 percent of their gross revenue from January through July of last year, and would only be permitted to use the funds for operating expenses, including payroll.

Under the CARES Act, Congress has already provided $300 million to the nation’s fishing industry and $16 billion for dairy and livestock producers as well as fruit and vegetable growers.

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