Old logs creating controversy
By Paul Peterson, For the GazetteONTONAGON — A television documentary on underwater logging sparked interest in the subject for Lenore Smith and her family.
“My husband was watching a show on recovery of logs from Lake Superior and what beautiful furniture they made out of it,” Smith recalled. “He said it would be nice to have furniture like that and that’s when we started looking into it.”
The TV documentary covered the work of Scott Mitchen, a Wisconsin entrepreneur who made a name for himself by recovering old logs out of Lake Superior in the 1980s.
Mitchen said he got the idea while diving for old shipwrecks near the Ashland, Wis. area.
“I had done a lot of diving around the world, but the number of logs down there just struck me,” he said. “It seemed like such a waste to have them just down there doing no good.”
When word about the sunken logs, and their possible value, got out, it created in Mitchen’s words, “a gold rush.”
“Pretty soon, you had everyone looking to make a fortune,” he said. “By then, the DNR had to get involved because of the number of people interested ... and the Indian tribes began raising questions about disturbing the fish environment. It became very difficult to get a permit.”
Mitchen said that underwater logging ventures in Michigan are much more difficult to get going than in Wisconsin or Canada.
“I don’t know what is exactly the problem in Michigan, but it’s lot more complicated,” Mitchen commented.
That’s something that Smith and Graham Kelly wouldn’t disagree with. They’re just two of a handful of people who have applied for permits to bring up old logs from Keweenaw Bay, Huron Bay and Grand Traverse Bay.
Their latest permit efforts are currently being reviewed by the U.S. Corps of Engineers and are likely to be challenged in court by the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community.
The KBIC has been an outspoken opponent of removing logs from Keweenaw Bay, maintaining that such action would disturb the fish environment.
Kelly, of downstate Grand Ledge, has even said he would donate logs with markings to local museums.
“I would do that because it will help perpetuate the whole saga of lumbering history,” he said.
Local historians like Jim Dompier of the Baraga County Historical Society are in favor of recovery of the logs, some of which have been underwater for at least 150 years.
“Recovering even some of those logs (with markings) are our dream and goal,” Dompier said. “They represent so much of the logging era in the Upper Peninsula.”
Because the logs cut back then were virgin timber, they have maintained and even increased in quality. It’s a quality that is prized for production of furniture and even musical instruments for the very rich.
Bill Gates, generally acknowledged as the most wealthy person in the world, recently had a mansion reportedly built exclusively from submerged lumber.
The most prized lumber found at the bottom of the lake comes from red oak, white pine and richly figured (bird’s eye) maple.
When the wood was cut down a century or more ago, it was rafted down rivers and streams so that it could be processed at mills. But as the timber was was floating through the rivers, a significant amount sank and remain there to this day.
Mitchen couldn’t estimate how many logs sunk in the waterways.
“I would say there’s billions of board feet still at the bottom,” he said.
Lenore Smith said she and her husband have spent “a lot of money and time” to obtain an underwater logging permit.
“We have a filing cabinet full of documents regarding it,” she said. “It’s been very frustrating.”Mitchen, who combined forces with fellow log entrepreneur Robert Nielsen to form American WetWood last year, said that four major companies in this country specialize in buying old lumber.
“It can be a profitable business, but you’re going to have spend a lot of money to deal with everything involved with it,” Mitchen said. “But there’s more to it for me. When I see an old log brought to the surface, I think there’s an old lumberjack who cut it down who’s probably smiling upstairs because his labors didn’t go to waste.”
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