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December 2005 & January 2006 - The Logging and Sawmilling Journal



Loggers Wanted - in Maine

A shortage of loggers in the state of Maine is having some side effects, including creating critical timber supply shortages for some Quebec sawmills on the US border.

By Martine Frigon

For the last two years, Quebec sawmills that receive timber from woodlots in Maine have been experiencing serious supply difficulties, due to a shortage of forestry manpower as well as American protectionist measures that limit the number of work permits issued to foreign workers. The lack of loggers has resulted in wood shortages for almost all Quebec sawmills near the border.

The situation has had a particular impact on Quebec loggers and operators who live in villages on the border of Maine. For several generations, Quebecers have been a source of manpower to American businesses and owners of woodlots. But for Quebec loggers and forestry equipment owners, it’s a part of their heritage that may be coming to an end. While many Quebec villages are situated right on the northeast border of Maine, villages on the American side, by contrast, tend to be located much further south. And given the long travel distances involved, few American workers are interested in working in the forests in that part of Maine.

The logging jobs are right there across the US border, but Quebec loggers are having problems getting to the jobs due to increased security measures and a lack of work permits issued by the US government.

Despite major advertising campaigns aimed at recruiting American workers, the problem persists, year in and year out. As a result, American employers are forced to appeal to workers situated on the other side of the border—in particular those in Quebec.

“For more than 50 years, we’ve been hiring 700 to 800 Quebecers each year, both operators and machinery owners,” says Patrick Hackley, spokesperson for the Forest Resources Association in Maine. But for the last two years, labour shortages have been on the increase.

According to Hackley, there are two main causes. The first is post 9-11 protectionist measures enacted by the US government aimed at improving domestic security. The second is the lack of H2-B work permits being issued; in short, the number of permits being issued is inadequate to fill vacancies.

“Every year, the US government issues 66,000 H2-B visas, but this is not enough. The quota is quickly hit in the first month of the year. By mid-season, there are not H2-Bs available for loggers because they start to work in June.”

This past year, the 66,000 visas authorized each fiscal year—which starts in October in the US—were gone by January 3, barely three months after the program’s annual start.

Gail Rioux, the manager of Lew Rioux Inc, in Fort Kent, Maine, is in charge of finding manpower for the northeastern Maine forestry industry. She also has to prepare H2-B visa applications. A foreign forestry worker who obtains the needed certification can work up to 11 months in the US. The problem, according to Rioux, is the requirements imposed by the US government and the state of Maine.

“We must first publicize the jobs to US residents in local newspapers, such as the Bangor Daily News and Waterville Sentinel, as well as at the regional television station and at career centres for a 45-day period. If there are still vacant positions, we have to inform government authorities. Only then can we ask for H2- B visas to fill the positions with immigrant workers, and in our case, Quebecers, who are used to working here.”

Some Maine politicians are lobbying against the H2-B permits, arguing they have the effect of depressing American logger wages. But Charles Tardif, vicepresident timber and industrial wood at Maibec, a large sawmill in Saint- Pamphile, on the Quebec-Maine border, says these views are not shared by all politicians in Maine. Tardif’s sawmill has been hit with supply problems.

“Not all Americans think Quebecers have a negative influence on the market in the state. Instead, they have positive effects because salaries in Maine are lower than in many other US states, and the fact that there is a shortage brings Maine forestry workers power to negotiate higher salaries,” he insists.

Through the efforts of a lobby group of New England employers and forestry associations, the US Congress voted last July 15 to approve a temporary measure, allowing American businesses who had already requested H2-B visas in previous years to apply for the same amount in 2005 and 2006.

As well, H2-B licences will be delivered in two periods in each year, giving companies who cannot apply by the fiscal year-end in October a greater chance. As a result, 33,000 licences will be delivered between October 2005 and March 2006, with the other half between April and September 2006. “It is going to give our entrepreneurs a chance,” says Rioux.

Many sawmills were built along the Quebec-Maine border because it’s an extremely wooded area. For that reason, some have huge production capacities, which require a tremendous amount of supply from Maine. In fact, the forests of northeast Maine are a natural source of supply for Quebec sawmills.

Producers sadly admit that competition is getting stronger among Quebec sawmills that get their supplies from Maine. Those sawmills are located in an area of the province that consists of private woodlots belonging to farmers, excluded from the Quebec government’s Timber Supply and Forest Management Agreement.

Given the big production capacities of Quebec sawmills located near the Maine border, “it is necessary to get timber from anywhere in Quebec, Ontario and other American states, such as New Hampshire, New York, Vermont, and even Pennsylvania,” says Tardif.

Moreover, the problem is not only limited to sawmills located at the Maine border. Take the case of Transylve, an independent sawmill in the central Quebec town of Saint-Louis-de- Blandford. The site produces 10 million board feet of lumber annually and treats hardwood such as yellow birch, cherry, white and red oak, white ash, soft and hard maple.

“It impacts us directly,” says the CEO of Transylve, Jean-Yves Mailhot. “My supplier in Maine told me he could not guarantee planned deliveries because he doesn’t have enough forestry workers. We therefore have to buy from other states, such as New Hampshire, New York and Vermont.”

But not all sawmills located on the Maine border suffer from this problem because some of them get their supplies from other places. “We stock up from the states of Connecticut and New York,” says René Bernard, president of the Irénée Grondin Sawmill in Saint- Zacharie, a small village along the Quebec-Maine border.

Do all sawmills in this region of Quebec—even those that get their wood from elsewhere than Maine—face a crisis in the future? Quite possibly, says Gaétan Lemay, who owns the Bois Lemay sawmill, along with his brothers Gilles and Fernand, located in Saint-Bernard de Beauce, 100 kilometres north of the Maine border.

Lemay says that although the problem affects mainly sawmills on the Maine border, it could extend to others in the near future. “At the moment, these sawmills don’t touch our cutting territories, but if the situation goes on, they could start to stock up from the same private woodlots as us and then everybody in the region will face shortages.”

Another factor, this one demographic in nature, compounds the political problems.
“The shortage of forestry workers is going to increase because their average age is 45 to 50 years old,” says Tardif.

“There will be a big shortage of workers not too long from now because there aren’t enough young people who want to do the job. As well, because there are no villages in Maine located near its northeast border, US workers are not interested in spending entire days in logging camps, while the Quebecers can easily return home because of the short distances involved.”

A constant shortage of loggers, sawmills with major production capabilities, and a higher Canadian dollar which has decreased the incentive for Quebec workers and operators to go work in northeast Maine—that’s the situation faced by most sawmills on the Quebec- Maine border.

An estimated 100 to 200 Quebec loggers recently returned, but the problem persists. “For the moment, we need the French Canadians. We are targeting the youth here in the north of the state to begin training and careers in logging, but this is a long-term goal,” says Hackley. Are they losing the battle? No, according to several sawmill representatives in the region, who refuse to give up the fight. “We are going to find other ways. We are already buying our wood somewhere else,” Tardif says.


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