Underwater Logging

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There’s an 18-inch chunk of sawn wood in Doug Stables’ office in James Bay with a rich reddy glow, polished to a smooth finish, a visual and tactile experience. Turn it over, and it has a raw, rough and gray appearance–what the tree must have been like just under the bark.

It’s Honduran mahogany, a wood much in demand by boatbuilders and fine woodworkers, prized over the centuries for strength and durability as much as its wonderful appearance.

More of it is going to be showing up in Victoria, and in boatyards and cabinet shops, if Stables’ business gets into high gear over the coming year.

The WaterForest Group is a new kind of logging company. It plans to bring out old-growth hardwoods from Central America, but without touching any trees growing in the tropical jungles.

Instead, it will bring trees up from deep in reservoirs flooded decades, sometimes a couple of centuries ago. Ebony, teak, mahogany, rosewood and other lesser-known trees are still standing, preserved in the deep water. “Sadly these forests have been logged so many times, some of the species are extinct.”

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On the other hand, “the neat thing about the wood is it’s all old-growth,” says Stables. Some of the underwater trees are of a size no longer found growing. “The joy of this is the wood is unique.”

Stables is a forester who spent 15 years in the woods on Vancouver Island with Western Forest Products, supervising logging on its timber lands, and running its Saanich Peninsula seed orchard. The experience left him dissatisfied with the ways of modern industrial logging, and looking for a different approach.

Underwater logging hooked Stables, and the related activities that will build sawmills that employ local people and encourage secondary manufacturing on the spot.  

“It’s taking something and doing it with a holistic approach that benefits everyone,” says Stables. “It’s the way it has to be done because it’s their resources.”

WaterForest made headlines this fall with an announcement of a major gift for the Bateman Centre, to be built soon at Royal Roads University to house a large collection of Robert Bateman’s work donated by the artist. WaterForest is providing $500,000 worth of Honduran mahogany, enough to lay a rich, red wooden floor in the entire building.

Royal Roads has a significance for Stables, who earned an MBA there, and where he met fellow learner Gerry Boivin, vice-president of WaterForest, and who in the 1990s developed the technology for cutting trees underwater.

It goes by the acronym ROSCO, for remotely-operated submersible cutting. Boivin did some early submerged logging on Kinbasket reservoir in B.C.’s Kootenay region, but Stables sees a big potential in the tropics.

Their first project is proposed for Belize, to recover timber originally cut in the late 18th century. Many of the logs sank out of sight in the rivers, but ROSCO’s sidescan sonar can locate them and its grapple will haul them to the surface.

“It’s a sonar-guided yoyo,” says Stables. The company claims the device can drop down, saw a length of timber and bring it up in seven minutes.

Timber from these finds may be available in Victoria, at a “mini-lumberyard” the company proposes to open where old-growth tropical hardwoods can be bought the way two-by-fours and OSB are sold to do-it-yourselfers.