Friday, September 09, 2005


Georgia Loggers Prepare to Raise Sunken Timber


The New York Times
September 05, 2005

CAIRO, Ga. - Along with regular lumber, Ryan Lee's sawmill supplies wood from cypress and pine logs that sank while being transported to ports and sawmills during the heyday of Southern logging in the 1800's and early 1900's.

Retrieving the valuable logs has been illegal in Georgia since 1998 because of legal and environmental concerns, forcing suppliers like Mr. Lee to buy them in other states.
But that is about to change.

This year, Georgia lawmakers approved legislation authorizing underwater logging for two years on parts of the Flint and Altamaha Rivers, mostly in southern Georgia. If no problems develop, the law may be extended.

Environmentalists oppose the work, citing concerns about spawning fish, water quality and getting less than market value for the logs, which are technically state property.

"This is the nursery grounds of the river," said Deborah Sheppard, executive director of Altamaha Riverkeeper, a watchdog group based in Darien, Ga. "To create a business that benefits a few," she said, "certainly is not in the public interest."

But State Senator Tommie Williams, a Republican from Lyons, said the law had been patterned after a Florida program, which he called a "safe way to do this."

"I didn't see a reason, as long as we could protect the environment, that we shouldn't do it," Mr. Williams said.

An estimated 3 percent to 5 percent of the millions of logs sent down the rivers in the 19th and 20th centuries sank to the bottom short of their destinations. These logs, known as deadheads or sinkers, remain well preserved on river bottoms.

The wood that comes from the logs is prized for its color and tight grain. It is up to 10 times as valuable as conventional wood.

The Georgia Department of Natural Resources plans to begin accepting applications from loggers in early January. Applicants will have to post a $50,000 bond and will need a $10,000 license. A proposal, not yet approved by the department's board, would also require loggers to pay the state 20 percent of the logs' value.

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

Mr. Lee said his Cairo company, Riverwood Flooring and Paneling, had been pushing the idea for nearly three years and already had a small barge with a winch to lift logs to the surface. To attach the cables, Mr. Lee would dive down to the logs in the Flint River, 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."

Mr. Williams sees underwater logging as a way to pay tribute to the old loggers, including four generations of his family, who felled trees with axes or crosscut saws and hauled them to the river with mules or oxen.

"It's really a treasure," Mr. 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."


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