Nature's Designs Log Furniture

UnderWater Magazine Article reprint: Fall 1997
"Underwater Logging; Submerged Logs Yield Premium Harvests in a Virgin Market"
By Madalyn Russell

 

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If you think "underwater logging" sounds like a tale from Jules Verne or an endeavor for Paul Bunyan and his blue ox Babe, think again. The truth may be as exciting and unbelievable as a Verne story or one of the Bunyan legends, but it's very much in the present and the economic impact of this "new" industry is no fable.

From colonial days, North America's development depended in a large measure on the availability of timber. The wood from huge virgin forests that covered much of the continent provided not only shelter, but also a livelihood for many. Felled by hand and floated on rivers and lakes to the sawmills where it was cut into the lumber which built our cities, the supply of wood seemed endless, but it wasn't. As one source disappeared, another would open until most of the forests which welcomed the first settlers had been logged, leaving very little of the old growth.

The logging done today produces wood which cannot equal the quality of the wood from old growth timber because the trees today do not exist under the same conditions, nor do they have hundreds of undisturbed years before harvest. In antique timber, the growth rings number as many as 30-70 per inch.

Today's forests produce trees which have only two or three rings per inch. The density and beauty of antique lumber, the mystique that accompanies logs bearing the marks of the lumberjack's ax, and the knowledge that the tree may have been a seedling when Columbus discovered America combine to create a commodity worth big bucks in today's marketplace.

There are two types of underwater logging being practiced today. In one, the work of felling the timber was done by early American lumberjacks, who often marked the trees with their own distinctive "brand" in order to receive credit for the log when it reached the mill. The other type involves forests still standing, but submerged by lakes and reservoirs created by the construction of dams and hydroelectric plants. Both lumber sources wait below the surface, ready to be harvested, preserved by the cool temperature and lack of oxygen which protect them from decay.

Perhaps the more romantic of the two is the supply of logs which sank more than one hundred years ago. These "sinkers", logs which weighed more than 62.4 lbs. per cubic foot, sank on their journey to the sawmills after becoming water-logged for any of a number of reasons ‚ the weight of other logs pushing them down, being caught in concave areas of the river banks, weighing too much because of sap density ‚ these and other conditions were responsible for logs that ended up on the bottom.

The sudden interest in this "new" business isn't sudden at all and the business isn't new. Underwater Logging, written by John E. Cayford and Ronald E. Scott and published in 1964, details the preparations, equipment, and research needed for embarking upon the reclamation of the billions of board feet of lumber lying underwater. The book, now out of print, even mentions that International Undersea Services began logging in Maine's Penobscot River in 1955. In those early efforts, divers recovered a 72-foot Norfolk pine marked with "the King's broad arrow" and destined for use by the Royal Navy. Obviously felled before the Revolutionary War, the tree was still in excellent shape.

Although the existence of these logs has been no secret and a few brave entrepreneurs have toiled on a small scale, recent public interest brought on by a spate of publicity and the availability of more sophisticated equipment promises more success to underwater loggers than in the past.

Scott Mitchen's operation in Wisconsin is one of the most widely publicized and successful efforts. A charismatic personality and a background which includes the discovery of a sunken pirate ship containing gold and silver make Mitchen the perfect focus of the news media. As a teenager visiting his grandparents in Wisconsin, he first discovered the sunken logs strewn along the bottom of Chequamegon Bay on Lake Superior.

In 1989, he decided to attempt to bring some of the logs to the surface, and after three years of testing, legislation, research and raising capital, he managed to do so. Then, after several years of piecemeal recovery efforts and campaigning for the necessary changes in state laws, his company, Superior Water-Logged Lumber, succeeded in acquiring permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to remove sunken sawlogs from the bed of Lake Superior on a large scale.

Using EdgeTech's Midas DF-1000 digital side scan sonar and underwater communications from U.S. Divers, Mitchen and his crew have discovered the positions and started the recovery of approximately 30,000 logs. When operations began, logs were raised by screwing an eyebolt into each log and stringing a cable through several logs. Then the string would be raised with an airbag. Now the company uses commercial divers and a winch system to load logs directly onto a barge.

Superior Water-Logged Lumber also buys submerged logs from other divers who bring them to the surface. According to Mitchen, "The difficult parts are the drying process and marketing the product, and of course you can't market them without drying properly. We took six years to figure out how to do it right. You don't want a piece of furniture to fall apart a few years after you buy it. This wood has very special drying procedures and should not go into any conventional kiln."

Mitchen's ambitions do not stop with log recovery. With the help and approval of the city of Ashland, Wis., he obtained a vacant sawmill and began processing his own lumber. He hopes to recover as many as 20,000 logs a year and to employ up to 150 people in the production of the coveted and expensive hardwood lumber destined for use in fine furniture, musical instruments, and cabinetry. He expects to net close to $30 million in 1998 with both the sale of lumber and a share in finished products. Plans are in the works for a retail complex with restaurants and 30 to 60 shops where artisans can make and sell products created from the logs which have rested on the bottom of the lake since they were felled by lumberjacks more than a hundred years ago.

Superior Water-Logged Lumber has found markets for its product in the United States, Canada, and Europe. Corporate suites in the Calgary Flames hockey team's Saddledome, the Park Place Building in Seattle, and executive offices of the Boeing Co. are paneled in wood from Superior Water-Logged Lumber. Ten life-sized water fowl carved by artist Greg Pilot from one section of a red birch are selling for $1,200 each and 23-inch birdseye maple cutting boards sell for $145.

The company has presented singer Johnny Cash with a flat-top acoustic guitar made from a 500-year-old red birch and hand crafted by Chris Hinton, a musical instrument maker at Superior Water-Logged. The guitar is adorned with a mother-of-pearl inlaid lumberjack on its headstock and, reportedly, Mr. Cash is highly pleased with the instrument's depth and sound quality. Prices for Mitchen's lumber run from $10 per board foot for character grade, which permits knots and defects, to $30 per board foot for select grade in widths of 8 to 16 inches.

In the waters of the southeastern part of the United States, former antique dealer George Goodwin and his wife Carole have found a supply of longleaf pine logs which, like those in Lake Superior, did not reach their destination. A pioneer in the log reclamation industry and advisor to others who followed him, Mr. Goodwin will not be specific about the location of rivers that hide the logs he buys from several suppliers in Georgia and Alabama. His sawmill in Micanopy, Fla., produces lumber for pine flooring and furniture by using the same methods employed by the sawmills originally destined to process the logs.

The production of lumber is much slower, but the price of the finished product is much higher than that produced by more modern methods from new-growth timber. The Goodwins' prices range from $5 to $13 per board foot for one-inch lumber, depending on width. One log may produce as much as 150 board feet.

Goodwin will appear on the Discovery Channel's "Dream Builders" on Dec. 15, 17, and 21 to discuss "the reverence he has for recovered pine, and the hard work that went into these logs before they were lost. Many of the logs have V-bottoms indicating that they were cut down with a broad ax and dating them to the days of slavery ‚ the more efficient two-man cross-cut saws were not even introduced until the late 1800's. That makes it all the more important... to conserve as much as possible of this rare resource," says Carol Goodwin.

Longleaf pine forests covered much of the eastern and southeastern parts of the United States before they were virtually logged out. The wood of the longleaf was used in the flooring of Thomas Jefferson's Monticello and in the keel of the USS Constitution. Most of the houses in the old South were framed with it. As strong as steel and endowed with a tighter grain than other pines, it makes a lasting and beautiful flooring material. The bulk of Goodwin Heart Pine Company's production is used for wood floors; however, it is also utilized in the building of cabinetry and some furniture.

Harold Faust, owner of What It's Worth, Inc. in Austin, Texas, praises the quality of old growth sinker cypress. His company specializes in reclaiming old pine and cypress that they mill into flooring and other millwork. "I got into this business 17 years ago pulling sinker cypress logs. The old growth cypress won't rot and the bugs won't eat it," he says. "Sinker cypress is unsurpassed in beauty and durability in this country."

Faust supplied sinker cypress for windows in the recent rebuilding of the Hillsboro, Texas, courthouse. (The historical building was gutted by fire in 1992, leaving only the limestone exterior standing.)

Faust says that he'd love to see commercial divers get involved in underwater logging. "There are probably thousands of logs in the lower Sabine, Trinity, and Neches River basins, but it would take a commercial diver to go down there and spot them and a guy with a crane and spud barge to pull them up. I'd be tickled pink for one of those guys to read this and go hunt for them and tell me åHey, I got some logs. You want to buy them?'"

Scott Mitchen had the good luck to receive help in changing the law in Wisconsin so that he could get his business off the ground. State Rep. Barbara Linton sponsored legislation in 1991 which set up a regulatory basis for underwater logging in the state's waters. Governor Thompson signed the bill into law in 1992, clearing the way for Mitchen's operation. Sometimes, though, states are not as cooperative and the red tape can become so complicated that one "can't see the forest for the trees."

In Florida, it is illegal to bring up sunken logs; George Goodwin buys his logs from out-of-state divers. In Orange, Texas, Tom Clary's Orange Ship Building Co. obtained all the necessary permits from various state and federal entities to remove logs from the Sabine River in order to construct a dry dock. The logs, under 30 feet of mud, were left from the days when the site had been a saw mill. Clary's efforts were halted when various organizations complained that too much mud was being stirred up by the operation and that he might be damaging historical artifacts. "There are more agencies than you can imagine that want to have a say in anything which involves public waterways. I found out the hard way that any of those agencies could shut you down quicker than you would ever believe. Mine came in the form of a 'Cease and Desist' order from the State of Texas Attorney General. That was when I gave up," Clary said.

The mud covering Clary's logs contains an accumulation of sediment resulting from the city's upstream sewer system effluent, which created a rather pungent smell in the wood. "Maybe that's the reason they called a halt to it," he laughed.

Different states have different laws, and anyone contemplating the adventure of underwater logging would be well advised to check into the statutes in his state. Wisconsin receives a 30% commission on the harvest of underwater timber; however, the state offers up to a 100% offset if the operation is beneficial to economic activity and/or encourages an increase in tourism. Louisiana exacts a tax according to the weight of the logs (before they are dried). As more projects get underway, new taxes and regulations will probably spring up. Also, laws tend to change as more interest groups get involved, so keeping up with the rules and regulations can be an ongoing task.

In some cases, environmental concerns have arisen. Rock River International in La Crosse, Wis., employs biologists, ecologists, and engineers who actually dive to study a situation for environmental impact. They strive to solve problems that may arise, such as the destruction of natural habitat. Joshua Britton, president and director of operations, says that in some cases, "I have developed a plan in which we could reintroduce better habitat than those logs are producing." He recommends working with authorities and interest groups rather than against them. "Use the money you'd use on lawsuits to build a park or a public boat ramp," he counsels. "If the community, as well as the logger, benefits from a project, things will tend to go more smoothly."

Doug McGriff, owner of McGriff, Inc. in Portland, Ore., began an odyssey across the northern part of the United States in April. Accompanied by his wife Pam, and using a specially designed pontoon boat equipped with a JW Fishers ROV, side scan sonar equipment from Imagenex and JW Fishers, and Fishers' DV1 simple drop camera, McGriff has surveyed lakes and rivers from Maine back to Oregon. The trip, originally scheduled to last only about six weeks, instead has run into almost six months, and it isn't over yet. Although the actual roundtrip mileage between Oregon and Maine is about 6,600 miles, the McGriffs, with all the side trips they've made, have already traveled a total of 15,000 miles on this journey. McGriff plans to consolidate the vast amount of information he's gathered, including advice about equipment needed for actually retrieving logs, and make it available to interested parties.

McGriff stopped in Wisconsin long enough to establish Wisconsin Logs, Inc. and to obtain 36 permits for underwater logging in three different areas of the state. Each permit covers a 40-acre underwater tract and there is no time constraint on when operations must begin. If the permits run out, they can be renewed, for the present, at a fee of $50 each.

Canada offers promising possibilities for reclaiming timber from beneath the surface. Underwater Logging, a company owned by Frank Marks in Castlegar, B.C., has engaged in both the retrieval of logs and in the harvesting of submerged forests still standing. Using Kongsberg Simrad Mesotech sonar to locate the sinker logs, he and his wife Theresa work the waters of Arrow Lake with two tugboats to bring them up. He also recently completed a project for Puget Power & Light in Belleview, Wash. The project involved cutting timber from below a dam on Lake Shannon outside of Concrete, Wash. The dam, built in the 1920's, caused the flooding of an old-growth forest with Douglas firs as big as seven feet in diameter. The recovery rate of 10-12 trees a day resulted in 250,000 board feet in a sixty-day period. The huge trees had to be cut in 13-foot lengths because a 45-ton crane couldn't lift more than that.

Marks illustrates the eerie feeling of diving in forests which still stand as they did when the waters covered them seventy years ago by recounting a story of two divers, clad in Newtsuits, who were exploring the area below the dam. One, taken by the strangeness of his surroundings, turned to the other and joked, "Look out for the bear!" The second diver, startled, actually turned around and looked for the animal!

Because health problems make it difficult for him to continue his business, Underwater Logging is for sale, but Marks plans to stay involved in the industry by being available for consulting both in person and through his Internet site.

In the waters of the Nechako Reservoir, located on the Nechako River west of Prince George, B.C., Canadian Forest Products Ltd. (Canfor), in cooperation with the Cheslatta Development Corporation (CDC) is licensed to harvest standing timber from below a dam built in the early 1950's. The Cheslatta Carrier Nation Resource Corporation (CCNRC) also holds a license for the same lake, concentrating its efforts on shallow water recovery while Canfor-CDC undertakes recovery in deeper water. Together, the two licensees hold an option on 6.5 million cubic meters of wood. Of the 3.5 million cubic meters under the Canfor-CDC license, only about 1.5 million cubic meters actually can be retrieved.

Sandy Long, who heads Canfor's special projects department, says that two-thirds of the forest of small pine and spruce is still standing, some partially above the surface and some submerged in as much as 150 feet of water. Although the parts of the trees exposed to the air have deteriorated, the underwater forest looks much as it did when the waters swallowed it in 1952. Aided by enhanced video, work crews pluck out the trees (roots and all), which measure 8-20 inches in diameter. Once the trees are out of the water, the Ultimate Feller-Processor mounted on a Caterpillar 320 cuts them off near the bottom, delimbs them, and measures the length. They are then transferred to a specially built barge, constructed of two large tanker cars joined by chains to hold the logs. In deeper water, where the trees are totally submerged, divers will be employed and a dive boat equipped with sonar designed for the job by Imagenex will be utilized.

Michael Robertson of CDC says that they, too, are concerned about the effects of underwater logging on the environment. However, studies of the conditions created by their operation actually produced good news. The crystal clear mountain spring water of the lake is low in nutrients, and it seems that stirring up the bottom of the lake has increased the nutrients in the water, actually providing a benefit to marine life.

The Nechako Lake Project is expected to take ten years to complete and to employ almost 200 people.

With the prescience that he demonstrates in his stories of space travel and underwater vehicles, Jules Verne again hits the mark in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea when he describes an underwater forest:

 

We had at last arrived on the borders of this forest, doubtless one of the finest of Captain Nemo's immense domains. He looked upon it as his own, and considered he had the same right over it that the first men had in the first days of the world. And indeed, who would have disputed with him the possession of this submarine property? What other hardier pioneer would come, hatchet in hand, to cut down the dark copses?
Hardy pioneers have arrived on the borders of the forest, but they don't have to use hatchets to cut the trees; they have much better equipment. Now, if they can just cut the red tape, maybe they can get to the "dark copses."

 

A Market with Potential
Underwater logging is hard, dangerous work. There are no blue oxen or bears lurking under the water, but a diver may encounter snakes and an occasional alligator ‚ one diver was measuring an eight-foot "log" in murky water, only to have it swim away. Another had a water moccasin strike his flashlight ‚ three times.
It is not an endeavor to consider unless one is willing to do his homework first. However, according to Frank Marks, there is an "unlimited amount (of water-logged timber) because anywhere that anyone has logged in water, you find logs today. We won't live long enough for all of it to be recovered. It's like pieces of debris in space; we have no idea how much is out there."

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