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NRDC: OnEarth Magazine, Fall 2004 - Briefings

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Dead in the Water


They're a hazard to boaters and swimmers. But
drowned forests may also be a great untapped
resource

A three-ton robot armed with a


chain saw is loose beneath the
placid surface of Lois Lake, a
reservoir 10 miles southeast of
Powell River on the Sunshine
Coast of British Columbia. No,
it's not a runaway from a low-
budget movie set. It's Sawfish, a
12-foot-long submersible,
powered by a 40-horsepower
electric motor, which promises a
novel way to spare old-growth
Using its powerful
trees by harvesting underwater timber.
pincerlike arms, Sawfish
(shown submerging, left)
Submerged trees like those in Lois Lake are the remnants of can harvest trees with a
forests that disappeared from view when valley floors were diameter of up to 50 inches.
flooded deliberately behind hydroelectric dams. Although the
flooded timber dies, cool water temperatures and the lack of
oxygen preserve it from decay. Still in perfect condition, the
drowned trees present an environmentally attractive alternative
to conventional logging. The contrast is starkly visible on Lois
Lake, where the surrounding mountain slopes are disfigured by
logging operations.

An estimated 200 billion board-feet of high-quality timber are


thought to be standing on reservoir floors behind the world's
45,000 major dams. That's more than six times the amount of
timber harvested each year in the United States. Ultimately,
Triton Logging of Vancouver Island, the company that designed
Sawfish, believes its submersible could save about 20 million live

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NRDC: OnEarth Magazine, Fall 2004 - Briefings

trees in British Columbia alone. Triton's president, Chris


Goodsall, estimates the province holds more than $800 million Lois Lake is the first of
worth of flooded timber, all of it unreachable by current three in British Columbia
harvesting methods. where Sawfish has
harvesting permits.
Although some logging companies have used commercial divers
to harvest submerged trees, diving is expensive, slow, and
dangerous. So Triton came up with the idea of a remote-
controlled submersible to do the job, launching the patented
Sawfish on Lois Lake in August 2003. Capable of operating in up
to 1,000 feet of water, Sawfish can cut up to 10 trees an hour.
That's somewhat slower than conventional harvesting
techniques, but each dead tree harvested by Sawfish can be
another live tree saved.

On-board cameras and sonar readings allow operators on the


surface to snuggle Sawfish up to a tree. Then, using its
pincerlike grappling arms to grasp the base of the tree, the robot
attaches an inflatable flotation bag to the trunk and cuts it down After it dries out, this
with a 55-inch chain saw. The robot currently carries 36 bags, so vintage timber will be
that many trees can be brought to the surface during a single sought after by craftsmen.
dive. Once Triton's robotic team harvests and raises its load of
Douglas fir, cedar, and hemlock from the bottom of Lois Lake,
the wet logs are floated to a lakeshore landing where they are
milled into high-quality lumber. While freshly cut submerged
wood obviously has a higher moisture content than regular
timber, it soon dries in the open air or in conventional wood kilns.

The wood that Sawfish harvests from Lois Lake will go toward
the creation of a branded, eco-friendly line of certified forest
products. Craftsmen especially crave this vintage wood, most of
which is between 100 and 500 years old, because it is
essentially the same age and color and has the same grain as
that used by artisans in earlier centuries to create pieces we
consider fine antiques today.

Sawfish's inventors don't claim their robot will bring about a


paradigm shift in logging practices. Rather, the technology is "an
ingenious way of salvaging valuable timber that would otherwise
be lost," says Adrian Newton, a technical adviser to the Global
Trees Campaign, which focuses on trees as flagship species for
conservation of ecosystems and landscapes.

For now there is only a single Sawfish in operation. But Triton


plans to deploy at least 10 more Sawfish units within the next
five years. The company has already received additional
licenses from the British Columbia provincial government to
operate Sawfish at two other locations -- Ootsa Lake, about 100
miles west of Prince George, and Kinbasket Lake, near Glacier
National Park. Harvesting is due to begin at Ootsa Lake next
summer.

Company president Goodsall is confident that the underwater


robot/lumberjack idea will catch on more widely. So far Triton
has fielded sales inquiries from Argentina, Malaysia, Ghana,
Panama, and Laos, among others, and is prepared to sell the

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NRDC: OnEarth Magazine, Fall 2004 - Briefings

equipment and provide training once prospective buyers


complete an evaluation of the harvesting potential. The
company's business plan calls for the sale of 300 to 500 Sawfish
units over the next 25 years. If Triton's projections are correct,
Sawfishes could eventually save as many as 40,000 surface
trees every month, giving consumers an environmentally friendly
wood choice -- together with a touch of history and distinction. --
Douglas Page

Photos: Courtesy of Triton Logging

OnEarth. Fall 2004


Copyright 2004 by the Natural Resources Defense Council

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