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Water logging

New Brunswick has completed an experimental underwater log recovery program which could lead to further salvage efforts.

By Harold Hatheway

McKenney in the water getting ready to fasten a choker to a log being recovered.

Diving for sunken treasure in the dark, peat-coloured water of the St John River is challenging even without a curious five-foot sturgeon peering in your face mask. Still, Mike McKenney finds recovering long-lost logs from the river bottom to be very exciting and he's convinced it could pay off - and not just for his fledgling company. It could also assist New Brunswick crafts people and the province as a whole if some major hurdles can be overcome. During the glory days of the forest industry, logs travelled to mills in drives and rafts on Canadian rivers and along sea coasts. But if logs were in the water too long, they sank and in amazing quantities. Those that ended up below the oxygen level are still in prime condition-and they are old growth of a size and quality rarely found in our forests today. 

As a result, underwater log recovery is becoming a unique and sometimes profitable industry. With underwater sonar, divers select the logs and then use cranes and barges to harvest them. When McKenney and Chris LeBlanc heard about underwater logging, they decided to put their diving skills to work. They quickly discovered there was little information and that government, while interested, was equally in the dark. There were also serious concerns about the environmental impact of stirring up silt in habitats vital to fish and other aquatic life. Faced with the desire on the part of McKenney, LeBlanc and others to move forward, the New Brunswick government set up a three-year experiment, to assess the economic potential and environmental concerns. If the report is positive, areas will be identified in the provincial river systems, specific regulations will be developed, and applications accepted and licences issued for underwater log recovery. 

For the experimental period, three permits were granted-to Marco Theriault (Eco-Timber), Mike McKenney (Canadian Maritime Wood Recovery), and Chris LeBlanc - all restricted to locations on the middle St John River. Lacking relevant regulations, permits were issued for "water course alteration", requiring submission of bi-weekly reports to the local ranger showing locations, quantities and progress for the previous two weeks and planned operations for the subsequent two weeks. Represented on an overall monitoring committee were: the provincial department of agriculture, fisheries and aquaculture; natural resources and energy; Business New Brunswick; plus the federal department of fisheries and oceans. It was chaired by a natural resources and energy representative. Each department monitored the project separately, including some inspections by contracted divers. Their findings were then discussed as a group. 

Operations are required to be at least 30 metres from shore and in water at least three metres deep. Only logs less than half submerged can be taken and there are limits on retrieving logs from tightly stacked piles - both to minimize sediment disturbance and the danger to divers. No operations are permitted close to sensitive fish or aquatic habitat areas such as spawning grounds. To date, no serious environmental incidents have been identified. McKenney speaks well of the bureaucrats, but he explains that the multiple requirements and reporting have been a real hassle. "They have really tried to be supportive, but they just don't have the resources to dedicate to what they see as a gamble." He also stresses the vital assistance of staff at the New Brunswick Museum Archives, who produced armloads of information about when and where logs were driven, saving endless days searching river bottoms for "mother lodes". He stresses that just because a log is found, that doesn't mean it is actually recovered. "We only lift a few logs out of most piles. 

To make the business pay-at least at this stage-we have to select what will almost certainly be saleable material." At present the only serious market is for hardwood and some white pine. "A diver who knows what to look for-and we can train him in a couple of weeks- will only bring up valuable logs," he explains. "They cannot only pick out hardwood from softwood, they can also identify the species. So apart from hidden defects, they just won't bring up useless logs." What this all adds up to is a potential supply of prime timber - essentially birch and maple in New Brunswick - although in some parts of Canada and the US white pine is a major target species. Just think of a ten metre log, perhaps two metres at the butt, of dense old growth-something not seen for many years. Markets and prices are another matter. Superior Waterlogged Lumber of Wisconsin seems to have cornered the market for buying, handling and selling the logs. 

McKinney, however, is convinced that not only should the logs be processed locally, but that the product should then be used by provincial craftspeople to produce unique, value-added items which command big prices, such as cabinetry, musical instruments and small implements. "This stock is finite-we have to make the most of it." The actual operation is straightforward. After the "paper" research to locate potential sites is completed, sidescan sonar is the first step, then actual diving to confirm species, quantities and accessibility. A diver goes down, selects a log and fastens a choker, the crane lifts and deposits the log on a barge and loads are moved to shore. The processing-which McKenney regards as the key to success-is more complicated, but the complication is in the skills, not the equipment. "We just don't have hardwood sawyers with the experience required to make that first all-important cut in a valuable log. 

There are some working in the southern US, maybe a couple in Maine, but we will have to import that expertise and train our people. Kilning is extremely tricky too. The heat seems to revive fungi, so there have to be applications of fungicide and special wax." Theoretically, there might be some interesting questions about ownership. On the Gatineau River in Quebec, the underwater loggers purchased rights to the logs from the still-in-business company which paid the original stumpage fee. In New Brunswick, where those companies seem to have disappeared, the government is happily collecting a modest "stumpage" fee per log-for the second time. Environmental implications are complex: the basic concern is stirring up sediment in areas used by aquatic populations for spawning and feeding habitat. There is also the possibility that this could release toxic substances such as mercury-either natural or from pulp mill operations-back into the food chain. Complicating environmental concerns is the lack of base line information about the potential work areas. 

Understandably, there is almost no information about the original populations of aquatic life, from fish to insects to plants, before the rivers were driven, but current information really isn't much better. This means delays while expensive studies are carried out and complex arguments about whether the end result will be a desirable clean-up or an undesirable habitat change. Combine all this with the high cost of operations and, in spite of apparently good markets, there's no guarantee that the project will ever pay off-making it difficult to sell to a banker. However, there are no doubts in McKenney's mind. "I know where there are more sites-away from the St John River. I know there is a world-wide demand-and I know we can develop the processing and marketing skills. This project will fly and if we can work out ways to have the material used in New Brunswick, all sorts of people will benefit."

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