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Mill closings make for tough market for logging in Wisconsin

RHINELANDER, Wis. (AP) — Longtime professional loggers in Wisconsin say they are dealing with the most difficult times their industry has ever been faced with.

Paper mills that buy pulp wood have closed, leading to an oversupply in timber markets that has sent prices plummeting.

The logging bust in northern Wisconsin has forced some loggers to pick up side jobs in construction or related fields. Some have left the industry.

“There’s no profit anymore. The profit is gone,” said Dennis Schoeneck, who founded Enterprise Forest Products, in Rhinelander, in 1978. “Like always, we keep getting kicked down the road, and we keep trying to survive.”

A huge timber buyer, Verso paper mill in Wisconsin Rapids, closed last year. More recently, the mill in Rhinelander announced it would idle one of its machines, scaling back its production. And a century-old mill in Park Falls that closed in 2019, reopened in 2020 and closed again in spring 2021, was bought last month by a company that may seek to liquidate it, Wisconsin Public Radio reported.

“The logging industry is in complete freefall,” said Michael Bablick, mayor of Park Falls. “Absolute devastation, especially if Wisconsin Rapids doesn’t start up.”

The Verso mill in Wisconsin Rapids was the largest buyer of timber in the Upper Midwest and its closure was a blow not only to Wisconsin Rapids, but its effects were felt hundreds of miles away.

The 1,000-acre mill employed about 900 people.

“It’s not just the local economy of Wisconsin Rapids,” said Rebekah Luedtke, executive director of the Wisconsin County Forests Association based in Merrill. “It’s not just the people who work in that mill. The ripple effect is enormous.”

The timber industry, including foresters, loggers and haulers, employs about 64,000 people in Wisconsin, said Henry Schienebeck, executive director of the Great Lakes Timber Professionals Association. Most are in small, family-owned companies, often spanning generations.

And for those who decide to leave, even quitting the business isn’t so simple. The heavy equipment used in logging is worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. Most loggers lease equipment from local banks, which means they must keep making monthly payments even if their businesses aren’t profitable.

And, if a logger stops making payments, the bank can repossess the equipment. But, that comes with a price for the banks because of the value of that equipment has plunged, and there’s little or no secondary market for it.

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