Watery logs expand wood products industry

Wisconsin State Roundup

Published July 1, 1997  | July 1997 issue

When one company started reclaiming logs from the bottom of Chequamegon Bay in 1992, few realized how much interest—and profit—those sunken logs would create.

Thousands of logs sank in Lake Superior during the 1800s on their way to the bay's flourishing sawmills; Ashland alone had more than 15 sawmills at one time. Those logs, largely from virgin red oak, maple, birch, hemlock, cherry and elm trees, never deteriorated because of Lake Superior's low oxygen level and cold water.

What started with one company's explorations has turned into a mini-industry, as the logs are in demand by furniture-makers, musical instrument-makers, artists and interior designers. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, the permit-granting organizations, are faced with applications from four companies seeking more than 200 permits in 40-acre lake tracts near the shoreline. "Groups are trying to lock up the lake bottom," says Ben Wopat, chief of the regulatory branch of the Corps of Engineers in St. Paul, whether or not they actually plan to harvest the logs.

The Ashland firm that started it all, Superior Water-Logged Lumber Co., has raised more than 600 logs from trees that could be 500 to 700 years old. "Some of these trees were seedlings before Columbus got here," says Scott Mitchen, president of Enviro-Recovery Inc., Superior Water-Logged's parent company. Generally submerged in about 30 feet of water, the logs need to be air-dried for six months or kiln-dried for a few weeks before they can be milled.

The spillover effect on the city of Ashland is already evident: Since October more than 8,000 people have made Superior Water-Logged's mill and logging museum a tour destination, and the mill currently employs 30, with that number expected to grow as the company expands both its operations and market.

As interest in harvesting the logs continues to grow, so does the interest of those affected. The Bad River and Red Cliff bands of Lake Superior Chippewa have questioned the state's legal rights over the logs, since some of those raised carried a stamp indicating they came from government, or reservation, land.

Environmental groups have also raised issues centering around the possible disruption of fish habitats or underwater contaminants. The Corps of Engineers' Wopat says that very few of the tracts have any history of heavy industries that could have dumped pollutants into Lake Superior. And the logs, which lie flat on the lake's bottom, have not become fish habitats.

What is clear is that this new industry, using an old product, has created a stir in the region. The state and the Corps are working to establish more efficient permitting guidelines, and the Wisconsin Legislature has considered new regulations for the industry, including raising the permit fee.

Kathy Cobb