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Deadhead program snubbed

Loggers balk at price state puts on old wood

February 18, 2006
Stacy Shelton - Staff

Georgia has spent more than $75,000 on a diving-for-logs program ... in which no one wants to participate.

Additionally, the state Department of Natural Resources hired an aquatic ecologist last month to run the program at an annual salary of about $60,000, including benefits.

"I told him, 'You're going to have a real boring job,'" said Jon Ryan Lee, a Cairo wood man who pulls sunken logs out of rivers in Florida.

The reason, Lee said, is that the state Board of Natural Resources set the price of the logs too high, about $500 each.

The lack of interest has made environmentalists happy. They oppose the practice, called deadhead logging, over concerns that it stirs up too much potentially polluted silt and disrupts the habitats of endangered aquatic species.

"Logs, particularly exposed ones, provide habitat for the insects and other arthropods that are the base of the food webs in Georgia rivers," said Satilla Riverkeeper Gordon Rogers, an environmentalist and former state fisheries biologist. "This is a half-baked idea."

It all started last year, when the General Assembly passed a law to give Lee the chance to remove logs from the bottom of the Altamaha and Flint rivers in South Georgia. The logs of old-growth cypress and longleaf pines were left behind a century ago from the days when the best way to move timber was to float it down rivers to saw mills on the coast.

Because they were mostly heartwood, and therefore dense, about 5 percent of the 200- to 500-year-old logs sank. Many are still sitting on river bottoms. They are the legacy of the disappearing long-leaf pine forests and cypress trees that once blanketed much of Georgia.

Rare wood dealers prize the deadhead logs. They use them in flooring, paneling and furniture that often wind up in clubhouses, resorts and million-dollar homes, including some in metro Atlanta.

In 1998, as commercial deadhead logging was on the rise, Georgia prohibited the practice because of legal and ecological concerns. In 2003, a state-appointed committee called the Submerged Timber Task Force advised the DNR not to allow deadhead logging before undertaking scientific studies that would take up to five years and cost up to $1 million. The committee said the studies would need to answer questions about the potential harm to biological resources, including largemouth bass and endangered mussels.

But last year, the General Assembly decided to move ahead without the studies. The law sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Tommie Williams (R-Lyons) created a two-year pilot program on parts of the Altamaha and Flint rivers. DNR was tasked with coming up with the rules, which it has done at a cost of more than $50,000. The rules, for example, prohibit dragging logs on the river bottoms, and logging cannot be performed within 20 feet of steep riverbanks to avoid erosion.

The law also requires loggers to pay $10,000 for an annual permit per two-mile segment of river searched. They must also post a $50,000 bond to ensure compliance with the excavation rules.

But the cost that dissuaded Lee was the price for the logs set by the Board of Natural Resources --- roughly $500 per log retrieved. The state's position is that it owns the logs because they are on the bottom of Georgia's rivers. And according to the state constitution, the state is forbidden from donating or giving away a publicly owned asset.

For months, state DNR staff worked on coming up with a fair price. They figured the price of $1.28 per board foot at about 20 percent of the value of the finished lumber. By comparison, the state sells yellow pine saw timber off its land at about 40 percent of the value of the finished lumber.

It's still too steep, said Lee, the deadhead logger who started his own company, Aqua Log Inc., in anticipation of retrieving river logs in Georgia. "I buy [deadhead logs] every single day. I know what they're worth and I know what people pay for them," said Lee, who works at Riverwood Flooring. "Nobody's going to pay anything over 15 cents [per board foot]," or a fee of about $60 per log to the state.

Florida charges a lot less than Georgia. There's a one-year fee of $5,000, plus a $500 permit fee that's good for five years. The state does not charge a fee per retrieved log, said Gordon Roberts, who runs the project for the Flordia Department of Environmental Protection.

Even at those prices, the state recovers its expenses, which run about $210,000 a year. Florida has about 60 deadhead loggers, about half of whom are active, he said.

It's also allowed in Maine, Michigan and North Carolina. Minnesota repealed its law after one year, in 2002, because of ecological concerns.

Warren C. Budd Jr. of Newnan, a DNR board member who chairs the Historic Preservation Committee, said Georgia prices must be set to recoup the expenses. One difficulty, though, is that no one knows how many logs are at the bottom of the rivers.

"If we charge less, it means the people of Georgia are subsidizing the program. No. 1, it's not constitutional, and No. 2, it's not good business," Budd said. "If nobody wants to bid on it, leave the logs where they are. We're not in business to guarantee these loggers a living."

Friday was the extended deadline for deadhead logging applications. A half-dozen people expressed interest, including Lee, but no one submitted an application, said Adam Kaese, the aquatic ecologist hired to run the program.

In the meantime, DNR has asked the state auditor to review the $1.28 per board foot fee to ensure the rate is constitutional. The report is due March 28, Kaeser said.

Also, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which regulates navigable rivers, is reviewing the state's request to allow deadhead logging in the Altamaha and Flint rivers. The corps could prohibit the state from issuing logging permits altogether.

Williams, who called the fee set by DNR exorbitant, said the Legislature could set the fee, but he wants to give the process a chance to work.

"I felt like we had a marketable product," Williams said. "It's not something that's naturally in the river. It was put there artificially by my ancestors and the pioneers in Georgia in the attempt to sell these logs to the European market."

 

 
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