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Sinking the law on sunken timber

Published (4/29/2010)
By Sue Hegarty
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Lumbermen from Elias Moses’ logging camp driving logs on the Rum River; Photographer: Whitney; Photograph Collection 1864; Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Historical SocietyEvery now and then, a floating log becomes snagged — bobbing on the surface where it neither sinks nor moves with the current.

The same could be said for a nondescript law that was effective for just a few months between 2000 and 2001. The law required the Department of Natural Resources to issue permits to divers for the removal of sunken logs — also known as bobbers, deadheads or sinkers — from the bottom of Minnesota lakes and inland rivers. However, during a 2001 special session, a permanent moratorium was placed on the “Removal of Sunken Logs,” so the law sat in limbo from then until now.

Unlike today’s fast-growth timber stands, deadhead logs are revered for their tight grain and splendid colors. Sunken pine is used to make furniture and flooring. Guitars and violins made with sunken hardwood logs are said to produce musical sounds that cannot be replicated.

The DNR publicly opposed the law since its inception because removing the logs could have negative biological and environmental impacts on the lakes and shore land, said DNR Waters Director Kent Lokkesmoe.

Embedded in the current House omnibus environment finance bill is a section to delete the “Removal of Sunken Logs” law and replace it with: “The commissioner of natural resources must not issue leases to remove sunken logs or issue permits for the removal of sunken logs from public waters.”

The proposed about-face originated with the DNR this year when it submitted its annual “technical bill” to the chairman of the Environment Policy and Oversight Committee. Typically, such bills are designed to clean up noncontroversial legislation, said committee chairman Rep. Kent Eken (DFL-Twin Valley). After the committee approved the policy bill, it was folded into HF3702, sponsored by Rep. Jean Wagenius (DFL-Mpls).

“I know that the impetus behind it was the disruption of the bottom of the water beds, not only that, but also some of the damage that’s done when removing the logs on the shoreland if you’re dragging them across the land,” Eken said. “I think that we should evaluate it further. … We don’t want to be so rigid and strict that we can’t do things that are of historical significance, for instance.”

To understand the sunken log’s nemesis, take a look back 200 years and revisit Minnesota’s historic logging era.

Magnuson and Lindell Logging Camp; Photographer: Burkhart; Photograph Collection ca. 1890; Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Historical SocietyLogging’s rich heritage

Two of Minnesota’s mythical icons are a sturdy lumberjack named Paul Bunyan and his trusty blue ox, Babe. The folklore is reflective of the immigrants who moved west across America, contributing to an economic boon in the lumber industry, which provided jobs and materials to build their homes and furniture.

Before modern transportation, lumberjacks cut and dumped timber into Minnesota lakes where it was stored during the winter. After the spring thaw, the logs were steered toward rivers where they floated downstream to burgeoning saw mills.

In the mid-1800s, loggers sent timber down the Mississippi and St. Croix rivers from the northern pine and hardwood forests to saw mills in Minneapolis and Stillwater. Each camp stamped its logs with a distinctive marking before dumping them into the water with the other logs. The rivers became so full one could literally walk across the river.

Some logs sank in the lake bottoms in the midst of their downstream journey. Thousands are presumed abandoned in river bottoms and lake beds to this day.

Whose log is it?

When the logs arrived at the mills, they were sorted by their owner’s stamp and handled accordingly. Without the invention of SCUBA gear, the sunken logs were abandoned and have rested in the cold dark waters 20 to hundreds of feet below the surface for the past 200 years. The lack of oxygen and light, combined with cold water temperatures, preserves the old logs as if they were freshly cut.

The State of Minnesota v. Bollenbach court case in 1954 established that soil under navigable bodies of water rightfully belongs to the state. Underwater logging applications were reviewed by the State Historic Preservation Office. The Department of Administration handled the requests and issued permits because abandoned logs were considered state property.

The SHPO required underwater loggers to gain permission from the state, to document log recovery locations, to turn over tools and artifacts to the state, and to photograph an owner’s stamp on the logs.

Then in 2000, Craig Waddell of Remer talked with Rep. Larry Howes (R-Walker), who sponsored a bill on Waddell’s behalf that required the DNR to design the lease program for underwater logging. Gov. Jesse Ventura signed the law April 6, 2000, and it became effective June 1, 2000.

Three leases were awarded by the DNR for a three-year period.

Divers such as Waddell and his cousin Dan Winger, also of Remer, received one of the leases. However, public pressure arose from lake associations and the moratorium was passed. The DNR was required to cancel the leases and refund the application fees.

“Lake association people thought they were going to see cranes and barges,” Waddell said, even though the lease terms stated that the only acceptable method of recovery was winching to minimize sediment disturbance.

Waddell said he did a test pull of a log and an anchor, and the anchor disturbed the sediment as much or more than the log.

Howes said the issue was thoroughly vetted and there was no opposition in committee. The House voted 129-3 to approve the bill.

“I believe the DNR completely messed up the process from the beginning,” Howes said. “If done right it would be very valuable to the state.”

For example, the wood could be sold and a percentage of the revenue could be turned over to the state to help fund education, similar to the way forestry activities supplement public education today, Howes said.

Economics vs. environmental damage

One of those who voted against underwater logging in 2000 was Rep. Alice Hausman (DFL-St. Paul). Hausman said when choosing between the valuable timber and water quality, she voted to protect the water quality.

Divers have discovered cultural and historic relics that predate statehood in Minnesota lakes.

“There’s artifacts from the beginning of time,” said Waddell, who was interested in deadhead logs to make souvenir jewelry boxes, gumball machines and other trinkets from the high-grade timber.

His sonar found Native American canoes from fur-trading days, along with less appealing modern debris such as barrels he suspects were dumped during the industrial revolution. Howes agrees there are more than logs at the bottom of Minnesota lakes. During the 1960s, residents would park a car on the ice and take bets on what date the vehicle would sink, he said.

Other states have faced similar debate between water quality and underwater logging activity. California and Florida also have allowed deadhead logging for periods of time. In Michigan, an entire wagon load of deadhead timber and the horse harnesses were found at the bottom of a lake. The antique value was estimated at more than $1 million, Howes said.

With no interest in lifting the moratorium to commence underwater logging, the DNR, which still receives requests for leases, is asking the Legislature to change the law.

In the Senate, where Sen. Ellen Anderson (DFL-St. Paul) is the sponsor, the language is part of SF3275, which was passed 63-4 on April 28. House action could be soon because the Legislature must constitutionally adjourn by May 17.

“I don’t think that we should completely close the door on it. I’m not one who believes that we’ll say that we’ll never do this again because you never know, and we could develop some new technologies and there’s some real value there,” Eken said.

Sources: “History of the White Pine Industry in Minnesota” by Agnes M. Larson; Department of Natural Resources; Minnesota Statute 103G.650; “Beneath Minnesota Waters: Minnesota Submerged Cultural Resources Preservation Plan”; Cass County Historical Society’s Cass County Clippings.

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