Update: The Assembly Committee on State Affairs passed the bill along party lines Tuesday afternoon, according to Rep. Swearigen's office. The bill did include the amendments that would allow the cooperative to also buy the Park Falls Paper Mill with the WEDC loan.
An assembly committee will vote on the so-called “Mill Bill” Tuesday. It could lead to the re-opening of two mills in North Central Wisconsin.
The closure of the Verso Paper Mill nearly a year ago was a blow to the timber industry in the Northwoods.
The plant had 900 employees that processed 1.5 million tons of wood each year.
The Park Falls paper mill closed again this spring after re-opening for just a few months.
Great Lakes Timber Professionals Association Executive Director Henry Schienenbeck said even though it’s smaller, its loss makes an impact, not just for people in the timber industry but for forest health.
“We need an industry that can absorb the wood that we’re growing. With the mill that were running, we were growing trees two times faster than we’re harvesting them in the first place. Every time you lose a market like that that really slows down management,” said Schienenbeck.
The Mill Bill could potentially get both the Wisconsin Rapids and Park Falls mills running again.
As originally written, the bill would authorize the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation to award a loan of up to $50 million to a cooperative to buy the Wisconsin Rapids mill.
Schienenbeck was at the public hearing for bill in Madison last week.
He said it went well and that the bill authors said they’d make an amendment to include Park Falls in the legislation.
“I think we were able to share enough that the committee was able to get a good feel for what it is that the multi-stake cooperative intentions are and kind of how it would operate, that kind of thing. I think it went pretty well overall. There were a lot of good questions. Hopefully we answered all their questions appropriately,” he said.
WXPR spoke with Governor Tony Evers about the state of the timber industry last week when the governor was visiting a farm in Merrill.
He didn’t speak directly to this bill, but Evers did say he supports innovation in the field, like this cooperative.
“It’s a huge issue for us. Most of those mills they pay good money and they’re really important to the local economy. We want to make sure that A) those workers are taken care of, but B) we are encouraging that innovation that is going to be needed to find new markets and new uses for our timber productions,” said Evers.
Schienenbeck hopes this bill can pass through the legislature and be signed by Governor Evers quickly.
Fewer mills to process wood, means loggers will be getting paid less.
“A lot of those guys are going to convert to other businesses. They’re going to have to if they want to survive. Once that logging community is gone, it’s very, very hard to replace it,” he said.
If it passes out of committee it will then go to the full Assembly and eventually the Senate and the Governor being signed into law.