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Treasures of the Deep

Summary:With higher log values, interest is growing in BC in salvaging `sinkers' and standing trees in man-made lakes created years ago by hydro dam construction.

By Reg Barclay
Copyright 1996. Contact publisher for permission to use.

A barge with a grapple-equipped crane floats quietly on the placid waters of the lake, which reflects the greens and blues of the surrounding hills. In the cab of the crane, the operator stares intently at a video screen. A sector-scanning sonar unit dangling below the barge produces an image of the bottom of the lake, showing a criss-cross pattern of long, cigar-like shapes.

The operator lowers the grapple, the barge tilts slightly, and the sought-after treasure _ sinker logs _ soon breaks the surface. Loaded onto the barge, the logs will ultimately end up at a sawmill or pulp mill for conversion into a commercial product.

Recovering sinkers on a commercial scale like this is relatively new in BC; there are now up to a dozen underwater salvage operations, while five years ago there may have been only one or two. What is the commercial potential of recovering wood like this?

According to Roger Stanyer, CEO of Forest Renewal BC, it is significant. He refers to the "lost gold mine" sort of stories, where divers have reported piles of logs underwater 300' high, some of the logs of a size that we haven't seen logged for years.

It has been reported that one out of every 17 logs harvested on the Coast has ended up underwater. No one knows the source of that estimate, but if it's true, it is roughly six per cent of the harvest lost over the last 80 years. In addition to sinkers, nearly one million acres of standing timber has been submerged behind hydro dams in BC over the last 80 years. Whatever the potential, it is clear that there is a substantial opportunity awaiting the hard-working entrepreneur, with the capital, skill and patience to harvest these treasures of the deep. Stanyer points out that underwater logs are, of course, a non-renewable resource. Still, sinkers and drowned trees represent an opportunity, if taken on an incremental basis over 10 years, that could be "significant in volume, partially offsetting the declining timber supply, forecast for the next decade."

How big is the expected supply decline? Russ Taylor, writing in the Widman World Wood Review, said, that as a result of new reserves for parks and the new Forest Practices Code, the annual harvest of logs in BC will decline 12 to 15 million m 3 [or 1.5 billion fbm], by the year 2000. This represents a loss of enough fibre to close 12 large sawmills.

The surprise about salvaged logs is their condition. "They are as bright and sound as the day they sank, as long ago as 50 years," says Stewart Mossman of Marwood Industries, who, with partner Norm Ross, has been operating on Cowichan Lake for four years. About 80 percent of the salvaged logs are sold as pulp wood. They also have an operation in Nimpkish Lake where the yield is about 50 percent saw logs .

That salvaged logs are commercially useable is not a surprise and was confirmed by scientific research in previous years. John Hatton, Principal Scientist at the Canadian Pulp and Paper Research Institute at UBC found that salvage logs from Williston Lake were eminently suitable for kraft pulp manufacture.

This included floating logs, as well as partially and fully submerged trees. A paper by John Dobie of the former Western Forest Products Lab in Vancouver confirmed that logs from Ootsa Lake developed satisfactory quality lumber, although, because of their saturation, special drying schedules may be required to dry the lumber to KD standards and to prevent a higher-than-normal degrade.

Ken McKeen, Director of Technical Services of COFI, says, "logs in deep, fresh water are not subject to rot as bacteria requiring oxygen are not present. The structural integrity of the wood is sound, although there may be some slight discolouration."

Ownership of salvage logs is a consideration but not an insoluble problem. Where ownership is clear, the salvage operator usually arranges a salvage contract with the owner.

Frank Marks of Underwater Logging Ltd., has been operating on the lower Arrow Lake since April, 1994. Initially operating at Nakusp, his operation is now located ab ove t he Hugh Ke e n l eyside Dam at Castlegar, and he sells to Pope and Talbot and Celgar. His logo reads, "retriever of lost treasures."

Under normal operating conditions, Frank Marks says he salvages 50 to 60 m 3 of logs per day, the equivalent of two truckloads. Assuming 12 operators in the province work a full year, this represents a salvage volume of approximately 100,000 m 3 per year, or about one-tenth of one percent of the annual harvest in BC. However, a strong wind is the nemesis of the salvage logger. In the Interior, cold weather forces closure during the winter, so a full operating season is not always possible.

A capital investment of up to $500,000 is required to set up a sal-vage operation. Equipment required is a barge, grapple-equipped crane, multiple anchoring system, log storage tray, sector-scan imaging sonar with video screen, and a small tug.

With this equipment, Bill Maitland, operations manager of Goat Lake Wood Products working on Lois Lake near Powell River, says he can recover logs in depths up to 300', but prefers shallower depths for better production. Oddly enough, operators are currently facing a weak market for pulpwood and some curtailment has taken place, despite the loom-ing harvest reduction. This is the result of panic buying of logs from outside the province, combined with an unexpected weakness in overseas pulp markets.

Consultant John Mees says the market is now temporarily awash in logs, and pulp log prices have collapsed, after doubling in the third quarter of 1995 from the average of 1992 and 1993. The Ministry of Forests has not been too interested in underwater salvage logging up to now. Proper timber sales have not been possible, as volume, quality and species of logs on lake bottoms is unknown. The MOF has been content for independent operators to make their own arrangements and the MOF charges 25 cents per m 3 for recovered logs.

However, Ian Haman, MOF Castlegar says, "this may change and timber sales are under consideration. Stumpage may be increased, but the operator, because it's a crown sale, would be free to sell to anyone, which is attractive to operators generally."

While there appears to be room for more sinker recovery, the real volume potential lays in salvaging the drowned timber in hydro dam reservoirs. In his report, Dobell estimated a volume of 28 million m 3 . If harvested over a 10-year period, this could theoretically add 2.8 million m 3 or four per cent to the BC annual harvest.

In line with this thinking, the MOF has advertised its first reservoir salvage timber sale. Involving three forest districts, the sale volume is 7 million m 3 to be harvested over 10 years on Ootsa Lake, part of the Nechako River watershed, which is dammed to provide power for the Alcan mill at Kitimat. Bill Brennan, MOF Prince George, is responsible for the sale and says "while providing additional fibre is a priority, there are other benefits. There is an environmental problem to resolve, as submerged trees are a hazard to boating and broken tops litter the shore and are unsightly. In addition, employment will be increased in the region by extending the work season into the sum-mer months."

He noted also that the sale requires bidders to consider Native Indian claims and consequently he said, "bidders intend to include Indian bands in joint ven-ture relationships." The sale stipulates salvage of three types of fibre-floating logs, trees partly or completely submerged, and shoreline debris. The lake is relatively shallow, averaging 150' in depth.

Operators must take everything to 35'' below the surface. This means that clearing will be much deeper, when standing trees, whose tops are in the 35' zone, are recovered. As an incentive, stumpage will be 25 cents per m 3 , as this is in the nature of a test sale, and the sale volume is strictly a guess.

The sale has generated considerable interest by major companies, such as Canfor and Slocan. Small, independent salvage companies are also bidding, such as Fred Host, who has been salvage logging on Harrison Lake for several years, but has now decided to concentrate on Ootsa Lake. Canfor's Sandy Long, Manager of Special Projects, Prince George office, is enthusiastic. "The plan," he said, "is to pull up the submerged trees by their tops, and because the roots are dead, the tree should come up with little difficulty. Roots will be re-entered in the Lake, where they provide an environmentally friendly habitat for marine life."

Unrelated to the Ootsa sale, but recognizing the same benefits, is a $350,000 project to map and inventory Kinbasket Lake, north of Golden. BC Hydro estimates that 1.8 million m 3 of standing timber was drowned, when this lake was created. Because of its extreme depth, salvage will be difficult, and so the project will also test equipment for commercially recovering the wood.

The successful bidder, Bluewater Marine Services, has employed Sylvametrics, a forestry consultant specializing in forest inventory methods, to assist. "We feel this project will benefit the for-est industry by supplementing fibre supply and providing more fo re s t ry jobs,'' says Stanyer." Undoubtedly, technology will be a key element in the Kinbasket project, as it has been for the lake salvagers to date.

A Vancouver company, Imagenex Technology Corporation, is a world leader in producing and distributing specialized imaging equipment such as the sector-scanning unit used by salvagers to recover `sinkers'. They also produce an underwater side-scan module for mapping lake bottoms and locating concentrations of drowned timber. Through adaptations, even the size and volume of the timber can be measured. This equipment is towed behind a slowly moving boat or mounted on a remotely operated underwater vehicle. A global positioning receiver and antenna are connected to the sonar processor to measure position. Sonar images, GPS latitude and longitude, plus the time and date are stored on a computer disc for printing later at a more suitable place. All this can be powered with a portable generator supplying a few hundred watts.

Alan Mulvenna, Vice President said, " Imagenex has made sales and deliveries to customers all over the world through agents in the US, Europe, Scandinavia and Australia." Salvage logging illustrates that ways can be found to supplement a fading harvest of standing timber. Despite the usual short-term peaks and valleys, the trend towards a higher value for fibre will undoubtedly support other new ways to increase the fibre supply.


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