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Gabriel Couto, 16, of Antrim works the hook out of the mouth of a bluegill he caught in Norway Pond in Hancock Wednesday while fishing with his dad.

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NH forest-products industry lumbers on amid COVID, other challenges

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the forest-products industry in New Hampshire was facing some challenges.

For example, biomass plants, which use wood chips, sawdust and other timber debris to produce energy, were struggling to remain financially viable, and exports of United States lumber to China were being hit with tariffs.

However, things were looking up for spring 2020, according to an article in the Timber Crier, a trade publication from the N.H. Timberland Owners Association. Pulp markets were strong, prices for some sawlog species were increasing, Chinese tariffs had been lifted on certain hardwood species, and some softwood markets were on the upswing.

And while the pandemic put a damper on some of that optimism, it’s not doom and gloom for all sectors of the industry, according to state experts. COVID-19-related restrictions have exacerbated labor challenges and harmed an already struggling low-grade timber market, but people stuck at home have provided boosts in some areas, including the softwood timber market that feeds home-improvement projects.

Within the industry, there are areas that are doing all right, specifically some of the white pine sawmills, Jasen Stock, executive director of the N.H. Timberland Owners Association, said Wednesday.

White pine lumber is frequently used in structural and building materials, and now that many people are home, they’re looking to do home-improvement projects, he said. Spruce and fir lumber is also benefiting from the increased interest in home repair and renovation, he said.

Likewise, the market for corrugated cardboard is holding its own, he said, as more people order items online, and the production of bathroom tissue is doing well, in part due to the demand for toilet paper in the weeks following the arrival of the novel coronavirus in the U.S.

Hardwood lumber, including oak and maple, is one of the markets that isn’t doing well right now, he said. Much of that lumber gets exported, and because of COVID-19, some of the ports are backed up, making it difficult to move the product, he said. In addition, many hardwoods are used in the making of furniture, and those facilities have been closed, he said.

Another market that is doing poorly focuses on coated paper, which is covered in different finishes to be used in products such as photo books and magazines, he said.

“A bunch of mills in northern New England make that paper, and they’re struggling,” Stock said.

Andy Fast, forest industry specialist with the University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension, said that even before the pandemic, the loss of biomass plants in New Hampshire had negatively affected the low-grade timber market. It was an important market for loggers and sawmills because it gave them flexibility, he said.

The explosion at the Androscoggin Mill in Jay, Maine in April further exacerbated the problems facing the region’s low-grade timber market, he said, and left businesses across New England without a place to send their pulpwood, he said.

“What we’re seeing is there has been a number of really challenging market conditions that have really affected the industry separate from the COVID impacts,” he said. “There are a lot of complexities to it.”

Still, the biggest concern of all groups within the forest-products industry is the uncertainty COVID-19 is creating for timber markets, Stock said in recent testimony before the Governor’s Office of Emergency Relief and Recovery Stakeholder Advisory Board.

Forest-product companies by nature are resilient but facing circumstances he described to the advisory board as “extraordinary and unprecedented” because of the pandemic. They include market reductions and even collapses, idle sawmills and work-force impacts, he said.

The forest-products industry in New Hampshire employs more than 7,200 people and is tied to an additional 5,500 jobs in support and related industries, Stock said in his testimony. The industry generates $1.6 billion annually in economic activity and is a critical economic engine and source of jobs in rural areas, he added.

However, that labor pool is already somewhat limited, he said by phone Wednesday, because of the rural location of many of these mills.

In general, labor tends to be one of the greatest needs in the industry in both good and bad economic times.

“It’s an interesting dynamic because you’ll find, particularly on the lumber side of things, mills perennially are understaffed, and they’re trying to find workers,” he said.

The pandemic has exacerbated that staffing situation as people either refuse to work due to fear of contracting the virus or decide to stay home and collect unemployment benefits, he said.

Separate from the COVID-related employment problems, the forest-products industry has an aging workforce, especially in the logging sector, Fast said.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the logging workforce nationwide is projected to decline 14 percent, or 7,400 jobs, by 2028.

“Given the trends in logging productivity, even if the total jobs in the sector declined nationwide in coming years, there will still be a need to replace those retiring,” Fast said.

As for the next few months, Stock said he believes the softwood market will be fine, and as the economy starts to come back and exports start to resume, some of the hardwood markets will come back. But the market for low-grade timber remains a huge question mark, he said.

“We know biomass is a shadow of what it used to be at market, and the paper market is just full,” he said. “What we’re going to see is a very painful adjustment period where you have a lot of fiber in the market and that fiber in the supply chain needs to work itself through.”

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As Crotched Mountain closes, other agencies say they'll step up

With the Crotched Mountain Foundation planning to close its Greenfield campus by November, area agencies that serve people with disabilities say they’re ready to bridge the gap.

The campus houses Crotched Mountain School — which provides special education services to students from kindergarten into early adulthood — as well as a residential program for adults with disabilities.

The upcoming closure was announced Tuesday evening. Officials said the school and adult residential program were unsustainable, despite attempts to cut costs.

The school serves 79 students ages 8 to 21, primarily from New Hampshire, other New England states and New York, according to officials. There are 24 residents in the adult program.

The organization is also a temporary residence for kids removed from their homes by the N.H. Division for Children, Youth and Families.

Officials with several local organizations said they are saddened by the news of Crotched Mountain’s closure but ready to help those who will be affected.

Monadnock Developmental Services on Railroad Street in Keene is one of 10 nonprofit agencies funded by the N.H. Bureau of Developmental Services to arrange assistance for children and adults with developmental disabilities.

Executive Director Alan Greene said MDS provides some of those services itself, but it mostly works with about two dozen other agencies in the region, including Crotched Mountain, to find the right services for its clients.

Residential programs are one of the services MDS outsources. It currently has five clients in Crotched Mountain’s adult residential program, Greene said.

Greene added that several other providers have already reached out to ask how they can help once Crotched Mountain closes.

“We develop creative solutions, and we have been doing that for 40 years,” he said. “Give us a problem, we solve it, and I have every confidence we can figure it out.”

At Cedarcrest Center for Children with Disabilities on Maple Avenue in Keene, CEO and President Cathy Gray said Crotched Mountain’s students probably wouldn’t come to the center because it specializes in a different set of needs.

Cedarcrest primarily serves children — from birth to age 21 — who are developmentally and physically disabled, while Crotched Mountain is focused on children with behavioral and emotional difficulties, such as autism.

“Most of their students would not be appropriate for services at Cedarcrest,” Gray said in an email, “though there are other providers who specialize in the needs of children with behavioral and emotional needs.”

One of them is Compass Innovative Behavior Strategies, a Concord-based company with an autism clinic on Main Street in Marlborough.

CEO Dan Dube said the company will be able to accommodate additional families when Crotched Mountain closes, as the Marlborough facility is in the process of expanding.

The Concord-based company provides therapeutic services for children with autism-spectrum disorder, among other developmental difficulties. The program is similar to Crotched Mountain’s Ready Set Connect Autism Centers in Concord, Tilton and Manchester — which will remain open, Dube said.

The Marlborough location is working with only 10 families right now due to the restrictions put in place for COVID-19, but he hopes it can soon serve upward of 60.

“From our perspective,” Dube said, “we will do whatever we can to try and help out families in the Monadnock Region or across the state affected by this.”

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Keene councilors to weigh citizen request for police body cams

Update: This meeting will be held virtually on the videoconferencing platform Zoom, rather than in-person. Information about how to participate can be found here.

The Keene City Council’s finance, organization and personnel committee is scheduled to discuss tonight a petition calling for all Keene police officers to be equipped with body cameras.

The petition has more than 700 signatures to date, between a hard copy circulated during a recent Central Square protest and an online version on Change.org.

The petition was launched by a newly formed activist group, Keene Direct Action, organized by three area women, Laura Dunfey-Ehrenberg, Lynne Carrion and Josie Fernandez-Andersen.

Dunfey-Ehrenberg said the hope is to encourage transparency and improve accountability for police officers.

Dunfey-Ehrenberg said the group was launched in response to the killing of George Floyd, a black man, in Minneapolis police custody, as well as the resulting protests, rallies and, in some cases, riots. She said the police using force against peaceful protesters in some parts of the country is especially upsetting.

“For weeks now, we have seen footage of police officers around the country using brutal force against peaceful protesters,” she said. “The fact that people protesting the murders of innocent black people by police are met with that kind of brutality is deeply disturbing to us and many others in the Keene community.”

Communities around the country are discussing changes to policing and ways to increase accountability. Some have suggested shifting funds from police agencies to other public-safety services, like hiring mental-health experts. Others have called for better vetting of new hires and more training.

Those topics came up during a virtual public forum on racial justice hosted earlier this month by Keene Mayor George Hansel. Multiple participants called for Keene to examine its police budget to see how funds could be better allocated.

The following Thursday, the council approved its 2020-2021 spending plan without making adjustments to its $7.8 million police budget.

“With that very large amount of money allocated to a police department in a very small city, we see no logical reason that a portion of that money could not be used to acquire body cameras, unless the city or police department feels they have things to hide,” Dunfey-Ehrenberg said. “We want our police officers to be fully accountable for their actions so that people in our community, especially people of color, can hopefully feel a little bit safer when having interactions with the police in Keene.”

The Monadnock Region has seen a number of protests, including in Dublin, Keene, Peterborough, Walpole and Winchester. During one in Central Square in early June, Keene Police Chief Steven Russo, Officer Cristina Paterno and Cheshire County Sheriff Eli Rivera joined the protest with signs that read “We Hear You.”

The Sentinel reached out to Russo when the body-cam petition was first introduced to the council last week. He declined to comment because councilors had not yet discussed the issue.

The committee will meet tonight at 6:30 p.m. via Zoom.