Hydrowood’s Snipe logging bargeUnderwater treasure found in the form of trees

Buried in the water of reservoirs around the world are submerged trees estimated to be worth as much as $50 billion—and an Australian company has developed its own process of retrieving wood from drowned forests that is described by some as one of the most technologically advanced systems in the world.

By S. J. Trotton

As harvest profiles world-wide continue to evolve due to ongoing changes in climatic conditions, loggers are perpetually adapting their methods in response, and looking for new locations to log that may include steep terrain—or even underwater.

In the most western part of Canada, steep slope logging is progressively becoming more common. In British Columbia, it's estimated approximately one quarter of the Annual Allowable Cut (AAC) is sitting on slopes greater than 35 per cent.

Canada’s logging industry is also actively involved in salvage logging that includes what they can find underwater. Companies like CoastEco Timber and Aqua Timber have long known about the value of submerging timber from deep watery depths. Vancouver Island’s Triton Logging, which boasts being the longest continuous Rainforest Alliance Certified Rediscovered Wood producer of any underwater logging company in the world, has been underwater logging for years. Triton uses highly advanced equipment like their logging submarine the Sawfish which is equipped with a 55-inch harvester bar that can easily cut large second-growth trees such as Douglas fir.

Hydrowood’s Snipe logging bargeHydrowood identified high-grade furniture species in the timber in Tasmanian waters including myrtle, black wood, celery top pine, sassafras, eucalyptus and Huon pine that were going to be nearly impossible to source anywhere else. This difficult to find wood can potentially command high prices, when it’s converted to lumber.

But there is one underwater logging company that operates in Australia’s most southern island state, Tasmania, that tends to stand out from many of the others. The company’s process of retrieving wood from drowned forests is described by some as one of the most technologically advanced systems on the planet.

Formed by business partners Andrew Morgan and David Wise, Hydrowood is Australia’s efficient answer to salvaging underwater treasure from western Tasmania’s man-made hydro-electric dams. The company’s entrepreneurial duo shares a wealth of experience they had gained even before undertaking their newest venture. Both were long-time successful forest managers of SFM Environmental Solutions, a leading provider of independent certified forest management and forest consulting services based in Tasmania’s capital city of Hobart.

Recalling Hydrowood’s early beginnings, Morgan and Wise say they were initially skeptical about starting an underwater logging operation. They had a hard time believing the retrieval of ghostly looking timber, seen emerging above the waters’ surface of lakes like the long and narrow, 2,200-hectare Lake Pieman, formed in 1986 when the Tasmanian government dammed the river and left behind rare species, would be financially profitable or even viable. They were outdoor adventurers-at-heart, however, and knew they could start the research process from the sky with Wise being a long-time bush pilot.

“David knew he could get us aerial images that would tell the whole story,” said Morgan.

Hydrowood’s Snipe logging bargeHydrowood’s Snipe logging barge has a brand-new Cat 568, equipped with a SATCO 630 directional felling head able to reach depths of 26 metres.

Those aerial views told them there appeared to be a significant amount of almost a quarter-century-old untouched timber available for harvesting. They also showed, however, much of the area would be difficult to access.

From reviewing their findings, Morgan and Wise instinctively recognized they needed to undertake a feasibility study. In 2012, following much discussion, and in typical Aussie style, some icy cold beverages, the two embarked on a partner study with Hydro Tasmania, the University of Tasmania and the Australian government’s Department of State Growth. As with any normal terrestrial forestry operation, the study assessed how much timber they would have to cut and how they were going to remove it from the area. They studied dozens of aerial photos of the flooded area and sought advice from foresters who had worked in the area previous to the flooding.

“My mind went straight to the logistical nightmare of trying to salvage this wood,” admitted Morgan. “We knew accessibility would be a monumental issue.”

At the same time, he also knew the furniture high-grade species identified in these waters including myrtle, black wood, celery top pine, sassafras, eucalyptus and Huon pine were going to be nearly impossible to source anywhere else.

“This was pretty special wood that is difficult to find and could potentially command high-quality commodity prices,” admitted Morgan.

The study involved divers recovering timber that was later assessed by the University’s Centre for Sustainable Architecture and Wood. The assessment revealed evidence of wood that would be highly appealing to furniture builders, carvers and cabinetmakers – a group who would appreciate the density and beauty of the exotic species they located in the lake. Morgan and Wise also knew musical instrument manufacturers would appreciate the superior sound submerged wood tends to possess.

Hydrowood’s Snipe logging bargeThe customers for the wood produced from the timber Hydrowood accesses underwater appreciate the density and beauty of the exotic species located in the lake.

Upon completion of the study that showed the lake could potentially produce up to 10 years-worth of rainforest timber and their own overall assessment, Morgan and Wise were ready to build Hydrowood. Its construction development focused on ensuring the hydraulic enterprise would utilize the most efficient equipment available.

They knew they had to construct a high-tech system so sophisticated that it would be simplistic in terms of its operation. They wanted only one operator who could not only control the barge needed—later to be nicknamed Snipe—as well as an excavator that would sit at the top of the barge.

And the barge itself would be equipped with only the best in minimally invasive equipment: three thrusters and a GPS positional system that could allow the operator to automatically stay in position once a tree was located. Staying stationery would allow the operator to safely focus entirely on cutting trees and bringing them to the surface.

Most recently, Snipe was outfitted with a brand-new Cat 568. The barge has also been equipped with a low cab and low-height base machine that maintains a low centre of gravity for optimum performance. The Cat itself has been equipped with a SATCO 630 directional felling head able to reach depths of 26 metres because of its extended attachment: a telescopic boom that extends the felling head’s horizontal outreach capabilities substantially.

Hydrowood’s most recent operational modifications are aligned with traditional steep-slope felling applications that until Hydrowood came into existence, had not been used in this manner.

“The SATCO head’s lack of electrical componentry and overall simple construction, as well as its felling and grappling capabilities, make it highly unique and ultimately the perfect system solution for Hydrowood,” explains Morgan.

Hydrowood also utilizes a highly advanced, state-of-the-art, multi-beam sonar survey system for trees that are not visible from the surface. The system gives the operator two views, top down and sideways, so all angles of the harvesting head coming down and retrieving the tree can be viewed.

“Sonar technology was a must for navigating the dark and frigid tannin waters of Lake Pieman,” said Morgan. “With this kind of technology and harvesting advancements, we are confident we will be able to cut even bigger trees we locate in the future.”

For the approximately three years Hydrowood’s owners have been commercial harvesting, the response from the local community has been very positive. It has encouraged the two owners Wise and Morgan to think entrepreneurial again and consider the possibility of running a tourist operation that operates in conjunction with Hydrowood. It would provide tourists with the opportunity to see Snipe up close and in action—an operation that continues to capture increased worldwide attention on a yearly basis.

“Tourists nowadays are looking for unique experiences that offer once-in-a-lifetime opportunities,” said Morgan. “What could be more unique than seeing an underwater logging expedition up close?”

Hydrowood and other companies that extract wood from flooded forests have one distinctive attribute different from trees harvested from a standing forest. They must sit until their moisture content is an acceptable level before they can be sawn—a waiting period that can take anywhere from six to 12 months.

Although Morgan and Wise admit the waiting can be an “exercise in patience” they continue to be convinced how worthwhile the undertaking ultimately is for them.

“This is real wood—solid timber that comes untouched and intact,” said Morgan.

There is wide-spread speculation that the global number of underwater logging operations will continue to grow in the future. Reasons for this expected growth include:

  • Construction of hydro dams (such as B.C.’s Site C hydro project) continues to increase in many parts of the world due to increasing energy demands
  • More companies are starting to recognize the economic opportunity flooded forests can offer with mature tree timber being so valuable and an increasing emphasis on reducing land-based deforestation continuing to grow
  • The development of new underwater technologies continues to evolve.

Buried in the water of reservoirs around the world are thought to be about 300 million submerged trees, estimated to be worth as much as $50 billion with only a handful of companies in the world in a position to harvest that underwater resource.

Logging and Sawmilling Journal
May/June 2018

On the Cover:
Rod Dillman Contracting crews were recently harvesting wildfire-blackened timber in the south Cariboo region of British Columbia. The fire-ravaged timber is the legacy from B.C.’s worst forest wild fire season, in 2017. Read about how they are approaching the salvage logging in this issue of Logging and Sawmilling Journal, beginning on page 20 (Cover photo courtesy of Southstar Equipment).

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Australian Salvage Logging
Two Australian entrepreneurs have mastered a means of harvesting still-standing drowned forests from the bottom of hydro lakes in the Australian island state of Tasmania, and it involves some pretty interesting equipment.

Harvesting B.C.’s fire-ravaged forests
Rod Dillman Contracting is now tackling harvesting fire-salvage timber in the Cariboo region, one of the areas hit by B.C.’s worst forest fire season, when more than 12,000 square kilometres was burned by megafires.

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The Last Word
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