Update: 4:23 p.m.
The past 15 years have been difficult for Minnesota’s forest products industry. The 2008 housing collapse contributed to the closure of three factories that made oriented strand board (OSB), a plywood-like product used to build homes.
Then in 2012, a fire destroyed the Verso paper mill in Sartell.
Meanwhile, other mills closed in Duluth, Brainerd and Deerwood, and major paper mills in International Falls and Grand Rapids downsized.
This historical background is why many people were excited when a company called Huber Engineered Woods announced plans to build a $440 million OSB mill in Cohasset, just west of Grand Rapids.
The company hopes to innovate this fall or next spring, alongside a large coal-fired power plant that Minnesota Power plans to shut down by 2035.
“This is the biggest transaction in 40 years since the last plant was built in Minnesota,” said Scott Dane, director of Associated Contract Loggers & Truckers of Minnesota and new executive director of the American Loggers Council.
The new Huber facility is expected to create more than 150 direct jobs. Dane said it would also provide a huge boost to area loggers and truckers who haul the wood to the mill.
“This announcement gives a lot of encouragement to those who have struggled over the years, that there is something new to come and encourages them to reinvest in their businesses and make a long-term commitment,” Dane said. .
The company said it would need about 400,000 cords of wood per year to power its new plant.
As mills have closed in recent years, the amount of lumber harvested from Minnesota’s forests has dropped by more than a million cords each year, from more than 4 million cords to about 2.8 million.
This is bad for the loggers but also, according to many people, for the forests.
A healthy forest is one that is diverse, with different tree species and ages, said Jon Drimel, who manages the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources’ timber program. This diversity helps protect forests from wildfires and disease, and provides benefits for wildlife.
“So having this diverse forest is important,” Drimel said. “And our main tool to do that is harvesting and forest management.”
Drimel said the new plant will be located in the center of Minnesota’s lumber basket, giving loggers more options to sell their product.
“We have millions of acres of forest land in the North that need to be managed. And you do it by harvesting trees,” said Sen. Tom Bakk, a freelance cook, who drafted the bill to provide 10-year production incentives to Huber.
“But you can’t harvest trees [if] there is no one to sell them to,” Bakk said. “So the state has a vested interest in trying to find someone who will add value to the timber resource we have.”
The new plant could also have significant benefits for climate change, which may seem counterintuitive. After all, trees extract carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. So how could cutting down more trees help the climate?
Eli Sagor, an extension specialist at the University of Minnesota at the Cloquet Forestry Center, said when trees die in the forest, they decay and carbon is released.
“When we harvest those trees and turn them into long-lived wood products like oriented strand board, which is a building material, then they’re put into a building where that carbon stays locked in for decades, many decades. “said Sagor.
And then the aspen that is harvested to feed the OSB plant naturally regenerates after being cut, Sagor said.
“That then frees up that forested area to grow new trees, sequestering more carbon, storing more carbon, and continuing that cycle.”
Major industrial projects in northeast Minnesota are often touted as “jobs versus the environment,” in that you have to sacrifice one for the other.
Sagor, however, sees this project as a win, both for rural economies and for Minnesota’s forests.
Craig Sterle, a retired DNR forester and former state chairman of the Izaak Walton League, largely agrees. But he is disappointed by a provision passed by the Legislative Assembly which exempts the project from needing an environmental impact statement. Instead, agencies will perform a more basic environmental review known as an environmental assessment worksheet.
“As part of the construction of the wood mill, I would have liked to see an EIS so that if there are any questions to be asked, they can be done in a scientific and public way,” Sterle said. “But we’ll have to settle for a European arrest warrant, I guess, that’s how it goes.”
The benefits of the project will also come at a high cost.
In addition to nearly $30 million in production incentives approved by the Legislature, the project is also dependent on a $20 million investment from the state Department of Employment and Economic Development and a $15 million forgivable loan recently approved by the Eveleth-based state development agency. Resources and rehabilitation of the iron chain.
“I’m not a big fan of big incentives, but that’s the world we live in,” said IRR Commissioner Mark Phillips. “You know, if you want to land a project like this, that’s what the other places do.”
Correction (July 1, 2021): An earlier version of this story misidentified Senator Tom Bakk’s party affiliation. Bakk is an Independent. The story has been updated.
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