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Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Cry A River for the Paper Industry?

Never did this Rat expect to write a salutation to the Wisconsin paper industry, given how it dumped billions of gallons of toxic waste in Wisconsin’s rivers and constipated them with their dams. We are still cleaning up after the industry on the Fox River, getting rid of toxic PCBs from the mud and muck of that fabled river.

Last week we learned that New Page, an Ohio company that owns four paper mills in Wisconsin – oh, make that three now, but it had been four up until February, and as many as six a few years ago – filed for bankruptcy. It is staring at over $3 billion in debt.

The latest plant to be shuttered by New Page was their facility in Whiting, near Stevens Point. 360 jobs gone.

Given this industry was a voracious tree-eating, pollution-spewing monster parked on the state’s major rivers, do we even cry a river for them?

Yes. Despite its history of resource abuse, the paper industry cleaned up its act. It required a federal law and state enforcement to do it, but they got there. The Wisconsin River is a recreational gem these days, a possibility unheard of in 1970. Even the bedraggled and dumped-upon Fox River is being rehabilitated, its image improving yearly as the water quality improves in kind.

But not just on the river but out in the woods too we have decried the paper industry – all those trees cut, all that forestland ravaged. Even though industrial forests are treated like cornfields, that land once provided wildlife and bird habitat is now being cut up into 40-acre hunting plots and disrupting the continuity of that land that made for such good habitat. Many are lamenting the loss of the big forest tracts, for the sake of the birds.

Consolidated Papers was the kingpin of Wisconsin paper. Its empire was strung up and down the Wisconsin River and far afield into northern Wisconsin, where it raised and cut the pulp to feed its mills. It was a community-minded corporate citizen, helping build facilities and parks in the communities it had plants in and providing family-supporting wages. (Most paper plants in the Wisconsin and Fox river valleys were unionized.)

When Consolidated sold to Stora Enso, a Finnish company, in 2000, you could hear the dominoes getting stacked up, foretelling what was to come. By 2007, Stora Enso sold the mills it had bought from Consolidated at Biron, Wisconsin Rapids, Whiting, Niagara, Stevens Point and Kimberly. The first domino dropped in Niagara (320 jobs), where the rusting hulk of that mill looms over the small town like a metallic alien crashed into the river bluff. (Check out the picture.) Kimberly was next (600 jobs), and just this year, the plug was pulled at Whiting (360 jobs). Biron, Stevens Point and Wisconsin Rapids are still operating, but with dark clouds over their smokestacks.

Wisconsin had the key ingredients to make a paper industry – trees, moving water, and hard-working people. The trees have grown back, the rivers have largely recovered, but good-paying paper mill jobs are gone. Some of it is due to cheaper raw material and labor in Asia. Some of it is due to paper industry greed and shortsightedness. Some of it is due to the very device through which you read this essay – the paperless Internet.

For many reasons, especially how a healthy paper industry helped many Wisconsin communities and families prosper over the decades, we should lament its demise.

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