Grand Rapids, Minn., Paper Mill's Expansion May Depend on Tree Supply

Environmental review for a proposed $800 million paper machine at Blandin Paper Co. in Grand Rapids will focus on the mill's growing appetite for Minnesota's trees.

Dec. 22—Environmental review for a proposed $800 million paper machine at Blandin Paper Co. in Grand Rapids will focus on the mill's growing appetite for Minnesota's trees.

That's according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, which on Tuesday released a so-called "scoping document" that outlines what issues the agency will consider while conducting environmental review during the next 10 months.

It's the first peek at details of what would be the largest single expansion ever of northern Minnesota's wood products industry.

Blandin's parent company, Finish paper giant UPM Kymmene, has proposed adding the new paper machine. UPM hasn't committed to the expansion, however, and is waiting for the permitting process to conclude before making a decision.

The new paper machine would replace two other, aging machines and increase overall paper production at the mill from 450,000 tons to 760,000 tons annually. The mill produces glossy paper used in publications, including magazines produced by publishing giant Time-Warner.

To make all that new paper, the mill's consumption of trees would nearly double, from 203,000 cords annually to 400,000 cords — considered a major impact on the availability and likely price of cuttable trees in the region's forests.

That increase concerns not only the DNR but Minnesota environmentalists. Many groups have argued that the increase in paper mill and board plant capacity in Minnesota during the past 15 years has put too much pressure on the state's forests, cutting trees at a rate that damages bird and wildlife populations and that threatens overall environmental health.

"We're already cutting trees at an unsustainable level. Adding 200,000 cords more logging to each year is going to damage the forest," said Clyde Hanson, a Sierra Club activist from Lutsen. "It's like a dairy farmer who's out cutting his grass every day just to keep his cows fed The industry's appetite is getting too big for the farm."

Bill Johnson, natural resources program consultant for the DNR's division of Ecological Services, said the DNR will use a newly completed inventory of what trees are available in the state's various forests and a new computer analysis to see how the Blandin expansion might affect the forests and supply of trees for other mills.

"Timber harvest issues will dominate the debate," he said.

But Blandin's Spreeman said the company's timber experts believe there's plenty of wood fiber available for the mill expansion, although it may not all come from Minnesota.

"Wood fiber is not just a state of Minnesota market. The Minnesota industry is bringing it in from Canada, Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula," Spreeman said.

Dave Zumeta, executive director of the Minnesota Forest Resources Council, a state agency, said the industry's demand for trees has remained flat in recent years despite big mill expansions at Boise in International Falls and Sappi in Cloquet.

About 3.7 million cords of wood was cut in Minnesota in 2002, the most recent year for which data is available. That's down from a peak of 4.03 million cords cut in 1995.

"The industry expansions have been more than offset by the mills that didn't modernize and that closed down," Zumeta said. "It's either modernize or die in this global market." In addition to state-grown trees, Minnesota mills imported about 500,000 cords of wood in 2002, DNR figures show. The state had been an exporter of wood until 1999.

"We're closer to a million cords imported now," said Wayne Brandt, executive vice president of the Minnesota Timber Producers Association industry trade group. "Imports are an increasingly larger share of the mix. It's supply and demand." The Sierra Club's Hanson said the timber industry and state politicians already have put enormous pressure on DNR staff to reach a favorable conclusion in the environmental review.

"The governor doesn't have a special task force to protect biodiversity, he has a task force to protect the timber industry," Hanson said.

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© 2004, Duluth News-Tribune, Minn. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News.