The Nekoosa paper mill on the Wisconsin River, built 1883. Image by Mike De Sisti. USA, 2012.

Exploring the paper industry in Wisconsin, where many mills were founded alongside lushly forested rivers more than a century ago, the words that often came to mind were “pastoral” and “rustic.” The white-capped rivers and riverbanks themselves often abound with white cranes, gulls, egrets, deer and sometimes eagles.

Such outdoorsy charm creates a counter-intuitive backdrop for a globalization project about economic change that moves with digital speed.

The most striking and atavistic mill I visited was the Nekoosa mill, soon to celebrate its 130th birthday. It’s nearly a four-hour drive from Milwaukee, along a stretch of the Wisconsin River where nearly every town has a mill that makes paper of some sort – and some that until recently once had such a mill.

Nekoosa is a mill of particular pride and distinction.

Currently owned by Canadian papermaker Domtar Corp., it has made the paper for a long run of bestsellers: J.K. Rowling, Stephen King, Malcolm Gladwell, Henry Kissinger. One executive told me with obvious pride that Nekoosa alone on some weeks would account for nearly half the bestsellers on display in the national bookstore chains – back when those sorts of chains existed, anyway.

Most notably, it made the paper for the cinderblock-like biography of Steve Jobs, the visionary who did more than anybody to popularize the touch screens that have put a shroud of uncertainty over those mills and put many out of business. I’m referring to the 630-page 2011 biography by Walter Isaacson, which remains on the best-seller lists.

I had arrived to tour the Nekoosa mill on a warm summer day. It’s a handsome brick structure. The guide took me inside, where it was even warmer – that’s because paper machines have large middle sections called dryers that bake the last moisture out of the pulp. The interior was humid, cramped and noisy.

I asked if we could look at the river. We walked past some huge pulping vats and through a metal door and we stepped back into the sunlight, this time from a side of the building I had not seen driving in.

It was like walking into another world. Standing out on the mill’s riverside gangways, the main sound was the rushing river. I could see one of the three hydro-electric dams that still provide about a third of the mill’s electricity. The river was wide. Across the way was nothing but trees, reflected in the river, part of the seemingly endless hardwood forests in northern Wisconsin.

It is the same unchanged view that Nekoosa papermakers have seen for over a century. The view is as breathtaking as any painting by Thomas Cole or the others in the 19th century Hudson River School of landscape painting.

My guide through the mill, public relations staffer Craig Timm, is a Wisconsin native. As I gawked at the river, he commented that for as long as he could remember, the locals called the Wisconsin River “the world’s hardest working river.”

On the opposite side of the mill, meanwhile, are the vast woodyards, so large that the mill has its own rail spur and diesel locomotive to feed the mill.

In this part of the state a century ago, “there was nothing there at all, except for thousands of square miles of trees, intersected by thousands of miles of rivers. But that, as it turned out, would be enough,” according to the centennial history of Wausau Paper Corp. (1899-1999), which ran the Brokaw mill, about an hour upriver.

Wausau shuttered Brokaw earlier this year. Domtar had acquired three mills that make publishing grade paper on the Wisconsin river, although it closed one of them in 2008.

As a newcomer to the world of papermaking, I’d have never guessed that any industry could show such an organic side. Another Domtar mill, this one upriver in Rothschild, can nearly power itself with a new biomass plant – it burns the branches and deadwood left over from logging operations. As we report in our "Paper Cuts" series, these mills have no qualms about burning wood and the plumes that arise from their smokestacks – any carbon that’s wafted out over the forests gets gratefully absorbed by the trees, which are nurtured.

These are “working” forests – that’s another expression used by Wisconsin papermakers. The more paper society uses, the more forestland the mills can sustain.

Digital disruptions via touch-screens and wifi are only one of two new forces to have intruded on the cellulose economy in Wisconsin.

The other is China, which Wisconsinites vilify as a nation that cheats in the rules of global trade. The complaint is most common among the state’s many mills that produce glossy coated paper. What’s more, many of them wondered how China can make paper in a nation that deforested decades ago.

And yet China, too, can be pastoral – and not always in the same way as the upper Midwest. It is growing timberlands, most often with non-native eucalyptus. Pigs and water buffalo roam. Villages are simple. Transportation is often motor scooters.

Asia Pulp & Paper Co., the main Chinese papermaker that we profile, says it plants its timberlands in a “mosaic,” opening space between tree stands for habitat and pineapple or other biodiversity.

There’s evident national pride in the reforestation of a nation that by all accounts is working to reverse decades of deforestation and growth-at-any-cost economic development. On that point, the international environmental groups fully agree. But it’s those safeguards of forests inside China that only fuel China’s appetite for timber, pulp and fiber elsewhere in the world.

Those newly planted Chinese trees absorb carbon like a sponge, APP likes to remind visitors – something Wisconsin loggers highlight as well.

Some in China even echo the rhetoric of Wisconsin.

Asia Pulp & Paper has its own corporate slogan – which could have come from Wisconsin:

“When you use paper, we plant trees.”

Project

Faced with the devastating twin threats of digital and China, can a critical Wisconsin industry survive?

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