January and February 2006



Harvesting Sunken Treasure

Underwater Timber Salvage Corporation harvests and processes logs from the Columbia River.

By Cary Clayton

For thousands of years storms and floods have washed trees down to the Columbia River. Over time a whole forest's worth of the stems have sunk to the river's bottom. With the coming of settlement, thousands of logs harvested upriver then rafted downstream also sank and added to the unseen forest.

Small tugs equipped with advanced sonar equipment locate logs in the river.

Today Ross Bennett and his partners in Underwater Timber Salvage Corporation (UTSC) are working to complete the voyage those logs once began. Utilizing state of the art equipment, the company locates, recovers and processes the sunken stems then, using advanced, thin kerf, sawmill technology from AWMV Industrial Products, converts them into unique and highly coveted specialty lumber products.


Getting His Feet Wet

UTSC was founded when Ross Bennett left the oil exploration business and relocated to Northwest Oregon. In 1996 he purchased a 1950 vintage tugboat because, he says, "I simply loved the water and it was a good deal." In the course of operating his tug, Ross heard stories about unpleasant encounters between boats and submerged logs. His interest piqued, Ross inquired of a physicist about the percentage of logs once transported on the river that may have sunk rather than reaching their intended destination. An estimate of 5-7 percent surprised him but it turned out to be an estimate affirmed by old tugboat captains who had worked the river in the days of the log raft.

Ross Bennett’s innovative aproach to “logging” yields high grade lumbers valued by architects and designers even as it leads to waste reduction and a broad range of other environmental benefits.

Ross put his previous experience to work and began "looking at the river bottom" employing sonar. His efforts revealed a riverbed saturated with logs. He began to wonder, "Are they any good for anything?" To find out, Ross recovered some sample logs and had them milled. The results, he says, were astounding. The logs were nearly as sound today as they were the day they sank years, or even centuries, ago.


Overcoming Obstacles

Some logs pulled from the river still have timber company brands visible on them, brands that may have been applied 100 years ago and more.

Excited, Ross decided to do something about his discovery. But, he says, two major obstacles had to first be overcome: ownership of the logs had to be clarified and compliance with a vast array of regulations had to be assured. "Just because a log is in the river does not mean that it is free for the taking," he says. "Migratory logs are considered navigation hazards but buried, stationary ones are owned by the State. We can only harvest migratory logs."

After much effort, UTSC was issued in 2003 a permit to salvage logs in the Columbia River between the Canadian border and the river's mouth. The company had gained joint stamps of approval from the Corps of Engineers, the Department of Fish and Wildlife, the State and the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration.


Harvesting Underwater

To harvest logs, UTSC locates stems on the river bottom using a "side viewtop view sonar" equipped research vessel. Sections of the river are systematically mapped and the location of each log is electronically recorded with Global Positioning System coordinates. "Mapping logs," Ross says, "is a Herculean task and we have just begun to scratch the surface."

Stems are extracted from the water using a Caterpillar 350L excavator mounted on a 43 by 147 foot barge. A sonar-generated computer image allows precision. Logs can be recovered from as much as 28 feet of water. Removal is coordinated with appropriate agencies to ensure minimal navigational and environmental impact.


Various Values

All logs are removed from the river bottom, not just those with possibly high value. Species include Douglas fir, Western hemlock, big leaf maple and ponderosa pine.

The recovered logs are decked on the barge and transported to the UTSC mill by hired tug. UTSC also has an agreement to remove hazardous, untreated pilings from the river. Those pilings will yield #1 lumber when processed.

Marty Sprinzl estimates 10 percent of the logs are sold for pulp and 90 percent are high quality saw logs processed by the firm's LT300 sawmill.

River logs generally don't need debarking so, once ashore, they're cut to length, pressure washed and decked. Fresh cuts on log ends are treated with stain inhibitor to prevent 'air exposure discoloration.'

An entire thin kerf sawmilling system, complete with headrig, resaw, and edger and capable of sawing, in softwoods, 7-10 million board feet and more per year can be set up in a compact space for less than the cost of a single machine in a traditional mill setting.


Processing Recovered Logs

Stems are “harvested” by means of a Caterpillar 350L excavator mounted on a 43 by 147 foot barge. Logs can be recovered from as much as 28 feet of water.

To process its logs UTSC selected an AWMV LT300 based production system. Two factors were primary in the decision. First, Ross points out, a complete AWMV sawmill capable of milling seven to ten million board feet of softwood lumber per year can be installed for less than the cost of single machines in most conventional mills. At least as important, Ross continues, the very thin .055-inch bands used by both the LT300 and its associated equipment allows for extraordinary recovery both in terms of value and yield.

AHyster forklift delivers logs to the LT300, which functions as a headrig in UTSC's system. Flitches are removed until the log is ready to be broken down into cants for further processing or into specialty beams and other products. According to Mike Earlywine, UTSC's sawyer, "We process virtually the entire log into lumber. No large slabs go to waste here."

Beams are set aside while boards and cants are evaluated for grade potential, then processed. Cants are resawn through a twin unit Wood-Mizer Multihead re-saw running .055 kerf blades while material directly off the headrig is processed using a Wood- Mizer E430 Edger. The finished product is graded, sorted and stacked for shipment.

The AWMV system provides UTSC the ability to "custom mill" each log. As Marty explains, a broad range of species comes up from the bottom of the river but, beyond that, "The logs in the river are often colored by minerals so the lumber is varying shades of grey, green and blue coveted by customers who want a unique effect." Until a log is milled, it is not possible to see exactly what will come out of it.

Boards are separated by color and species, then sold in lots. One builder buys colored lumber for custom homes that includes flooring, trim and cabinets, all with the same hue. Lumber from unique logs is also sold as a unit for custom projects.

Unique logs also means yield must be maximized. According to Ross, the .055 kerf AWMV's LT300 provides increases yield from each log well in excess of 15 percent above Doyle scale and, if the log has any taper, the increase in yield is 30 percent or more. Referring to the 1.7 million board feet of lumber produced each year so far he adds, "Ultra thin kerfs means a lot more product and a lot less sawdust. We feel good about that but it is good business too."

Underwater Timber Salvage Corporation is completing the harvest of timber that, in some cases, began over 100 years ago. In its unique approach the company stands as an example of the innovation a resurgent timber industry has seen in recent years as it learns to practice conscientious environmental stewardship in bringing to market the wood products a vibrant economy requires.




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This page was last updated on Friday, June 16, 2006