By Tom Still

APPLETON – Foreign competition has threatened Wisconsin’s paper mills, which must employ the latest technology and find new markets – or slowly perish.

That may read like today’s headlines, but it’s a story from 1911. It still serves as an example.

A century ago, Wisconsin was the leading newsprint producer in the United States. That dominance faded practically overnight in 1911 with the lifting of federal tariffs on Canadian newsprint. Wisconsin’s paper industry was forced to reinvent itself or die. With innovation and new technology, it quickly turned to other paper grades and found new customers.

Virtually the same thing happened in the 1920s, when the growth of the paper industry in the American South challenged Wisconsin’s mills. Again, technology, innovation and better management saved the day. Most Wisconsin papermakers turned to higher quality products, shifting manufacturing to printing and writing papers, tissue, specialty papers and paperboard.

The diverse platform built in the early 20th century has supported Wisconsin’s paper industry ever since. For 50 years, Wisconsin has been the leading papermaking state in the nation. It generates billions of dollars in sales each year, and is directly responsible for 40,000 jobs. In 28 of Wisconsin’s 72 counties, papermaking or the allied forest products industry is the No. 1 employer; in 14 other counties, it is among the top three.

Wisconsin’s lead is once again being challenged by factors that range from the global (overproduction, slumping demand and consolidation of companies) to the local (regulatory hurdles and a lack of investment in new equipment and research capacity). The state has lost companies, mills and more than 10,000 workers, shocking an economy that had come to rely upon the stability of papermaking.

Fortunately, history may be repeating itself. Last week’s “Paper Days in Paper Valley” conference in Appleton offered hope that technology and innovation may once again transform Wisconsin’s paper industry.

The two-day conference ( featured presentations on reviving old paper mills; using nanotechnology to produce cleaner, stronger products; advancements in paper drying; and other breakthroughs in production, environmental and saving energy.

The conference also advanced the idea of moving beyond the value of the fiber itself to capturing byproducts – such as ethanol – before wood is pulped. University of Minnesota Professor Shri Ramaswamy predicted ethanol capture could become a $100 million line of business for the U.S. paper industry within the decade.
Challenges remain to a more innovative future. For decades, it has taken too long to get state approvals for paper mill expansions or new equipment, but rule changes approved earlier this year by the Legislature promise to slice the red tape. With dozens of paper companies competing in Wisconsin, company executives have generally been reluctant to share even the most basic research – or engage in partnerships with academic research institutions. Asking for help has not been a Wisconsin papermaking tradition.

The creation of a Paper Technology Transfer Center at UW-Green Bay may break some old habits. With start-up federal funding secured by U.S. Rep. Mark Green, R-Wis., and other members of the state’s congressional delegation, the center could provide much needed R&D for a consortium of mills. It could also serve as an incubator for early-stage companies with new ideas on how to produce and sell paper products.

Wisconsin engineering schools are among the best in the United States, and could provide the paper industry with more valuable insights on production, environmental protection and saving energy. Schools such as UW-Madison, UW-Milwaukee and the Milwaukee School of Engineering may also help to identify new products and customers. Another source of know-how and help is the Center for Technology Transfer in Madison, headed by biopulping expert Masood Ahktar. The resources are there. All that’s needed is the industry will to establish the partnerships.

For some Wisconsin-based paper companies, engaging in academic research partnerships close to home may sound like an opportunity. It will be a tougher sell with managers of mills owned by companies outside the state, which may have centralized their R&D in Helsinki or Atlanta.

Wisconsin’s paper industry stands at another historic crossroads. Tapping into the state’s technology and innovation base will help it choose the right path.

Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.