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Monday, February 4, 2013

Rat Riffs on "What if?"

Your Ratly correspondent does get out of her rat hole on occasion to see the sights of this lovely state.
This weekend I passed two very different and unrelated places in Wisconsin, but that got me to thinking.

One place, draped in fresh snow, was the Penokee Hills, the site of a proposed iron mine in Ashland County.   I also passed by a couple of paper mills -- homely and hulking, towering over their home communities (in this case, of Port Edwards and Rothschild), and steaming away in the cold air. 

Let me explain how an iron mine site pertains to a paper mill.

Photo courtesy Domtar Corp. (Nekoosa plant)
Despite its past glory, there is not much of a mining industry in Wisconsin, and no iron mining to speak of.  There's a good reason there's no iron mining -- what little low-grade ore exists is very hard to extract without considerable environmental disruption.  No infrastructure exists: the related ore processing would all have to be built from scratch. 

Mindless energy and attention has been given to this non-industry by legislators and business leaders.  It got me to thinking:  what if all the energy and resources devoted to a divisive and disruptive iron mine had been put instead to reviving Wisconsin's paper industry?

Bring Back Paper
We were the paper kings, after all, for more than a century.  Paper built this state.  We had the rivers and the trees and the workers and the knowhow.  Paper defined the Fox and Wisconsin river valleys.  But like an ill and elderly man, the industry is in decline.  In an excellent two-part story, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel outlined the Wisconsin paper industry's history and the many forces undermining it.

Wisconsin has not consciously decided to give up on the paper industry, as far as this Rat knows. But have their been discussions at high levels -- the governor, legislators, business leaders, academics, regulators -- about what the state could do to make that industry competitive again?  Do we think there is no job strategy in paper making?  Have we really given over the industry to China?

Seems to me it would make a lot more sense to put our time and brain power into a well-known industry that has a presence in a dozen or more communities, still employs thousands of workers, has its environmental performance figured out, and -- despite the fact you are not reading this on a piece of paper anymore -- still makes a useful product.

The "experts" might say Wisconsin's paper industry is beyond salvation.  But Rat is certain that conversation has not happened, and The End has not been declared.   A concerted effort for paper, by the same people who insist we need an iron mine, just seems so much more sensible than trying to ram an iron mine down our throats. 

Forget paper, you say?  Okay, but think about other possibilities:  there's the biofuels industry, among other industries of the future, that has great promise for economic development. This first-class state could do so much better than trying to revive a Third World industry. 

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