KELSO, Wash. – During timber's heyday, it was common to see tugboats pulling huge rafts of logs to area mills. In the process, many valuable old-growth trees sank to the bottom of Northwest rivers and lakes. That's given rise to different breed of logger. A few enterprising souls have sought to take advantage of the underwater hidden forest. But Washington State has moved decisively to shut down underwater timber salvage operations. That's effectively sunk the business in Oregon too.
The History Channel has scored a hit with its reality TV series about Northwest loggers called “Ax Men.” Among its colorful characters is the high-strung owner of S & S Aqua Logging, Jimmy Smith.
During season two, Smith hauls in massive logs not from the woods, but from the Hoquiam River in western Washington. His slogan is,“Recovering the forests of yesterday to save the forests of tomorrow.”
You might think logs would quickly rot and decay underwater. But more often than not, our cold and murky rivers preserve the wood. In effect, the tight-grained wood cures underwater.
“They say it's junk, call it firewood. I call it mantles and beautiful decorative lumber that goes in houses. It's a gold mine is what it is.”
Until a couple years ago, Ross Bennett of St. Helens, Oregon also pursued underwater timber salvage... he with a crew on the Columbia River.
Ross Bennett: “They figured five to six percent of every log raft sank, of the hemlock. There was thousands and thousands of rafts of logs, which meant there were millions of logs down there. So I got a sonar system and went out, took a look and there it was. There were logs everywhere.”
Here's the problem. Washington State takes a dim view of retrieving that timber. Oregon state agencies are only slightly less skeptical. Larry Raedel is the chief enforcement officer for Washington's Department of Natural Resources.
Larry Raedel: “We basically said we don't allow that practice to happen. Then come to find out later, he went off on his own and did it without the permission of DNR.”
Raedel started an investigation of Jimmy Smith's company after seeing them in action on national TV. The Grays Harbor County prosecutor is currently weighing a charge of theft of state timber. Meanwhile, underwater logger Ross Bennett also faces a felony theft charge for plucking logs from the lower Columbia River.
Ross Bennett: “I said what are you busting me for? What did I steal and who owned it? These logs come all the way from Canada. They can't just say a log is arbitrarily theirs.”
Bennett is currently scheduled to stand trial in Cowlitz County, Washington later this spring. The Siletz Indian tribe of coastal Oregon folded an underwater timber salvage business after they were subpoenaed in Bennett's case.
Underwater loggers argue they provide a public service by removing submerged logs that could endanger water sports enthusiasts. The state's Larry Raedel says those hazardous logs can and should be taken care of. But the rest belong on the bottom.
Larry Raedel: “It boils down really to habitat. They don't pose a threat to property owners. They're down there for a reason to provide habitat for fish and those types of wildlife creatures that are down there.”
If and when these cases come to trial, defense attorneys will dispute whether the state actually owns the sunken logs. Meanwhile, aqua logger and Ax Men star Jimmy Smith makes a non-legal argument for why he should stay in business.
Jimmy Smith: “You now, if one kid jumps off a bridge and hits a submerged log...If I can save one kid or one boater, I think it's worth it.”
Smith temporarily relocated to Florida to continue underwater logging this winter. He says he would much rather pursue his unusual line of business in the Northwest. But the way things are going, that looks unlikely.