Boston, Massachusetts- Cutting through the mountains of Maine, the deep Penobscot River has kept her bounty safe below the surface. Little to no life survives in the cold, dark belly of the river, which provides a perfect environment for preserving drowned logs. These dead trees were mere obstructions in the waterways, but more recently entrepreneurial loggers have deemed them treasure.
Lumber is being reclaimed from forests submerged by dams or left behind by river log drives of the 1800’s. The market thirsts for these scarce types of wood while it avoids deforestation. Logging can unveil extinct or protected species, specialty old growth woods and environmentally safe alternatives for the logging industry.
Initially, scuba divers manually dug out submerged timber in the dark muddy depths, one log at a time. Now, gathering pre-cut wood from rivers and cutting down submerged forests are enterprises advancing with technology.
“Maine is just filled with these bodies of water that have logs in them.” vouched Todd Morrissette, 40, founder and operator of Deadhead Lumber Company. His custom made scavenging vessel, the Aqua-Timber, replaces scuba divers with sonar, video cameras and remote operated claws.
The Sawfish, is an underwater chainsaw invented by Chris Godsall, 41, of the Triton Logging Company. This remote operated vessel can cut 1,000 logs in four days with the help of four men, a tugboat and floating bunks that hold the logs submerged until transport. With eight underwater cameras, a mouse and a joystick, this operation looks like a sophisticated video game. For Godsall, rare and valuable species of wood exist worldwide and await The Sawfish.
Demand is growing faster than supply. Timber prices rose 30 percent from 1975 to 1996, according to the World Resources Institute Report of 2000-2001. Reclaimed lumber sources can fill that demand.
The market that includes submerged wood rose 25 percent two years in a row, boosting the market to $5 billion in 2005, according to a report by the Forestry Stewardship Council. It is estimated that $50 billion in marketable timber is submerged in the 45,000 man-made dams of the world, according to an article in Wired Magazine by Michael Behar.
An estimated 870 million board feet (a foot of board cut from a log) of lumber were lost in the Penobscot River tributaries during the log drive of 1830-1850. During that time, the northeastern U.S. was in its prime as a major lumber supplier for England and Europe. The additional quantity of worldwide sunken logs is unknown.
The original lifetime of logs can be dated dendrochronologically by counting tree rings and its existence underwater can be estimated by examining marks left by various felling techniques.
Each new tool has transformed the industry. The axe was followed by the handsaw in the 1880s until chainsaws powered the industry in the 1940s. Ultimately the invention of railroads halted river transportation completely.
This wood can fetch premium prices due to the obsolete growing circumstances it once beheld. ‘Old-growth’ forests, untouched for centuries, grew densely and blocked sunlight below their canopy. Trees straightened up as they competed vertically to reach sunlight. Annual width was compromised to attain height and tighter tree rings resulted. Condensed rings created strength in the lumber that is unparalleled today. The impressive width of these wonders is a result of centuries that passed without disruption.
Trees existing today are between 12 to 14 inches in diameter, whereas old-growth widths are normally 18 to 20 inches and sometimes enormously 36 inches. Subsequently, conventional lumber on average can cost 30 cents per board foot, while reclaimed lumber can demand a price of six to 20 dollars per board foot. The source, width, form, age, strength, stain, and scarcity all contribute to its value.
The variety of lumber in the U.S. has decreased over the past century. “Maine has been cut many many times over” Morrissette laments. Less than five percent of virgin forests remain where an endless supply was once assumed. The flaming red birch is now extinct, elms have been tainted with disease, and old-growth forests only exist in protected areas. An occasional ancient one might sit within city limits; grandfathered in between yards.
Current consumer affections reclaim this wood as a sustainable source of lumber. It also carries the mystique of being venerable material with valuable authenticity for furniture and cabinet restoration or production. It has unique physical characteristics that create audible variation for musical instruments.
The preservation of submerged logs is critical to their value. Normally, wood decomposes when met with water and oxygen. More than 60 feet below the surface, where most good timber is, conditions can reach below 50ºF and be void of sunlight. Without live organisms to breakdown the wood, it remained unscathed for centuries.
The scarcity of this revered wood is demanding techniques known to the earliest ages of mankind — scavenging. Whether the lumber was misplaced or ignored, its value has grown exponentially in the lost and found. For now, reclaiming lost lumber is becoming a lucrative occupation. At least while supplies last.