Tuesday, August 16, 2005


Georgia moves ahead with plans for deadhead logging (good news for dendrochronology)


August 2005

Strolling among the stacks of lumber at his sawmill, Ryan Lee points to a section of an ancient cypress tree that was cut down more than a century ago and to heart-pine lumber that still bears the marks of a 19th-century logger's ax.

"This wood lets us connect with the past," he said. "It's something that was alive centuries ago."
Along with regular lumber, Lee's mill supplies cypress and pine from deadhead logs _ those that sank in rivers while they were being rafted to ports and sawmills during the heyday of Southern logging in the 1800s and early 1900s.

Wood from the sunken logs, revered for its tight grain and array of colors ranging from blond to caramel to black, is up to 10 times more valuable than conventional wood. It is used to make upscale paneling, flooring and furniture.

However, retrieving these logs from river bottoms has been illegal in Georgia since 1998 because of legal and environmental concerns, forcing suppliers like Lee to buy wood in other states, such as Florida and Louisiana.

But that's about to change.

Over the objections of anglers and environmentalists, Georgia lawmakers earlier this year approved legislation authorizing underwater logging for two years on navigable portions of the Flint and Altamaha rivers, which both wind mostly through southern Georgia. If there are no problems with the logging, the law can be extended.

Republican state Sen. Tommie Williams of Lyons sees underwater logging as a way to pay a final tribute to the backbreaking work of the old loggers, including four generations of his family, who felled trees with axes or crosscut saws and hitched them to mules or oxen to haul them to the rivers.

The logs came from century-old longleaf pines that stood in the South's primeval forest and from 600- to 1,200-year-old cypress trees that grew in isolated swamps, such as the Okefenokee.

"It's really a treasure," Williams said. "The quality of the wood and the uniqueness of the wood is something we can't duplicate. There really aren't any virgin forests left."

Williams' ancestors lashed the logs together in rafts and floated them down the Altamaha to the port at Darien, where ships awaited in the harbor.

"In its heyday, they say you could walk for miles on the river on rafts waiting to be loaded," he said.

Loggers along other Southern rivers, such as the Flint, used the same technique to get their logs downstream.

An estimated 3 percent to 5 percent of the millions of logs sent down the rivers sank to the bottom before they reached their destination. These deadheads, also known as "sinkers," remain well-preserved on river bottoms.

With passage of the deadhead logging bill earlier this year, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources began developing regulations to protect the rivers, recreational users of the rivers, and the state, which technically owns the submerged logs.

The department plans to begin accepting applications from loggers in early January. Applicants will have to post a $50,000 bond to cover damages and they'll need a $10,000 license. A proposal, not yet approved by the state Board of Natural Resources, also would require loggers to pay the state 20 percent of the logs' value to compensate for the loss of state-owned property.

With such stringent and costly requirements, Williams said he'd be surprised if there are more than three or four applicants.

Each license will cover only a two-mile stretch of a river. Deadhead logging will still be prohibited in areas where it could cause contamination, endanger fish or conflict with the rivers' recreational use.

Environmentalists oppose the work, citing concerns for spawning fish, water quality and the legality of disposing of state property at less than market value.

"We have consistently said this is a bad idea economically," said Deborah Sheppard, executive director of Altamaha Riverkeeper, a Darien-based river watchdog group. "It's a bad idea environmentally. This is the nursery grounds of the river. To create a business that benefits a few ... certainly is not in the public interest."

Williams said Georgia's deadhead logging law is patterned after Florida's program, which is in its sixth year. "The folks in Florida have come up with a safe way to do this," he said. "I didn't see a reason, as long as we could protect the environment, that we shouldn't do it."

Lee said his company, Riverwood Flooring and Paneling of Cairo, has been pushing the idea for nearly three years and already has a small barge with a winch to lift logs to the surface. But to attach cables to the logs, Lee would dive down to the logs in the Flint, which is infested with alligators, cottonmouth snakes and snapping turtles.

"This is not a job for the faint of heart," he said. "It's physically hard and demanding. Not everybody wants to do a job where every time you go to work, you could die. You're playing pixie sticks with 20-foot logs weighing 3,000 to 5,000 pounds. You can get squeezed."

But he believes the rewards will be worth the risk.

"It's virgin-growth timber," he said. "There's a certain mystique to it."


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