Water Logged

By James Lucas

It is the holy trinity of the new Green Economy--a company which improves the health of the natural ecosystem, makes places safer for people, and at the same time makes a profit. Tritom Logging Inc., of Victoria, British Columbia, is positioning itself to achieve all three.

 

For much of the past century, decisions have been made to flood vast areas of land to harness the power of water that collects in reservoirs behind large dams. In many of these areas, forests remain locked in time beneath the newly formed lakes.

Limited harvesting took place in these forests prior to flooding. The relatively short timeframe to plan and build a dam (2 to 5 years) versus the relatively long timeframe to log the standing timber (10 to 20 years) made the economics of logging untenable. In some cases, either the technology was not available at the time to harvest or mill these quantities of timber, or the species in the forests was considered undesirable or so abundant that forgoing the resource was deemed an acceptable loss.

In the United States alone, there are more than 6,500 large dams. According to the International Commission on Large Dams, there are nearly 45,000 large reservoirs (more than 15 meters or 45 feet in height), many of which hold submerged forests. The quantity and potential value of this resource is vast—estimated at 300 million trees worldwide—with an approximate worth of $50 billion.

 

Enter Triton. The company has built the world’s first deepwater logging machine, appropriately called the Sawfish. The machine is an unmanned submarine, tree harvester, and tree recoverer—all in one. Similar in size to an Austin Mini Cooper car, the Sawfish, which can dive to 300 meters (900 feet), has a grapple system capable of wrapping its arms around a tree with a 4-foot diameter. Once the machine attaches itself to the base of the tree it is to harvest, an airbag is screwed into the base of the tree and inflated to 350 pounds of lift. When the airbag is full, a chainsaw cuts through the trunk, and the tree then floats (or in some cases launches) to the surface of the water. The Sawfish pilot, who sits safely on a barge, finds each tree via a sonar system on the Sawfish. When visual contact is made, eight fully remote video cameras allow the pilot to “fly” the machine closer to the tree. The Sawfish contains approximately 50 airbags so that it can stay below the surface for a few hours if necessary. It takes two to four minutes to cut each tree.

Once the tree reaches the surface, it is collected by a small tug boat which has a specialized grapple system for pulling the logs to a central collection point, where a floating log loader places each log onto a barge. Once enough logs are collected, they are sent to a landing location and processed like any other land-based log. From here they are hauled to the sawmill and processed into a number of products such as dimensional lumber, timbers, flooring, poles, interior and exterior siding, cabinetry stock, and glue laminated beams.

Currently, Triton’s harvesting costs are similar to equivalent land-based operations. Triton’s eventual goal is to harvest timber at costs less than its land-based competitors. It incurs very few of the costs of conventional forestry operations—there are no replanting or fire protection costs, no roads to maintain below the watermark, and planning costs are a fraction of those on the surface.

 

The advantages of underwater logging with Triton’s Sawfish system are not just efficiency and economics. It also removes many of the hazards associated with other forms of underwater logging, including the use of divers and chainsaws. Since no workers are in Triton’s underwater cutting theatre (and because trees float up rather than fall down), the risks to loggers are almost non-existent.

Triton’s underwater logging also makes reservoirs safer for those who use the water for recreation. In many reservoirs, due to the limited harvesting that took place and the often significant decrease of water levels at certain times of the year, the tops of standing trees are sometimes only a few feet below the surface. These “dead heads” can be significant boating and safety hazards.

In April 2006, more than 100 passengers died when an overloaded ferry boat struck a submerged tree stump in Lake Volta, Ghana, the world’s largest reservoir. By harvesting these hazardous trees and marking cleared navigational channels with GPS coordinates, Triton helps improve the safety and recreational potential of reservoirs. And by providing new, environmental wood industry potential, Triton helps communities create vital economic development opportunities from a previously dangerous and intrusive situation. Lois Lake, a small hydro-power reservoir on British Columbia’s Sunshine Coast, has literally gone from a snag-infested safety hazard to a safe pleasure-boating experience in the areas where Triton has harvested thousands of standing Douglas fir, hemlock, and Sitka spruce trees.

The environmental performance of Triton’s underwater harvesting system has allowed it to be certified by the Rainforest Alliance’s SmartWood (www.smartwood.org) program. This strict set of operational standards is audited every year and covers everything from in-water activities and safety, to habitat protection and community/First Nations consultation. Harvest plans are created only after undergoing extensive wildlife and habitat surveys, which take into account nesting and spawning areas. The Sawfish causes little sedimentation and leaves the root system intact to keep the lakebed stable.

 

In addition to the environmental attributes of Triton wood, the wood often contains unique characteristics due to its age and the time spent submerged. Reservoirs in North America flooded in the first half of the twentieth century can contain large diameter old-growth trees with inherent tight grain. In some tropical areas, rare tree species (due to previous logging activity) can only be found underwater and their harvest can combat the allure of illegal logging activities.

Another characteristic of submerged trees is the actual quality of the wood itself. While land-based trees are prone to decay and collapse as fungi attack, the oxygen-poor underwater environment is mostly free of these and other organisms. The deeper and colder the water, the better preserved the wood. Triton’s extensive testing of submerged wood qualities, conducted with Forintek, Canada’s national wood research institute, has shown that trees recovered from reservoirs in British Columbia perform comparably to land-based trees in the areas of strength, bend, shear, and machinability.

 

Chris Godsall, the founder of Triton, has worked incredibly hard over the past seven years to transform his vision into a company which is grounded in business fundamentals but infused with the principles of sustainability. It has been challenging for Triton—as it is for any new company with substantial up-front technological capital costs and medium term goals of profitability—to balance the two without compromising its principles.

The social and environmental conscience underpinning Triton was evident early in Godsall’s career when, at the age of 25, he co-founded an award-winning nonprofit in Montreal called Santropol Roulant (www.santropolroulant.org), a meals-on-wheels service for isolated senior citizens in Montreal operated by youth who deliver (by bicycle) healthy meals to elderly citizens in need.

After leaving Santropol Roulant and fresh from completing his master’s degree in Responsibility and Business Practice at the University of Bath (United Kingdom), Godsall moved to British Columbia and began working in the underwater log salvage business with Wet Wood Underwater Fibre Recovery, which salvaged sunken logs from lakes and riverbeds. Godsall soon realized that while the sunken logs in lakes were on the scale of thousands in isolated locations all over the province, submerged trees in reservoirs numbered in the millions and were concentrated in three key monster reservoirs in British Columbia. Godsall started Triton Logging with small investments from family and friends, and some larger research and development support from the Canadian federal government. As the company grew and the technology was proven successful, later rounds of larger investors were added, but the company is still privately owned with Godsall at the reins.

 

As the world’s appetite for wood products grows and the effects of deforestation spread, finding solutions that balance environmental, social, and economic interests will require innovation at an entirely new level. Triton Logging is leading the way in the nascent underwater logging industry. By offering consumers, manufacturers, and green builders a clear and compelling alternative to virgin timber, Triton can help reduce the pressure on living forests while raising expectations for responsible wood ownership. As vast, but finite resources, underwater forests will require responsible management and committed partnerships between all stakeholders to realize their potential and share their value. Left out of sight and out of mind, these forests were once forgotten. Triton Logging is ensuring that they will not be ignored again.

James Lucas is a professional forester in British Columbia where he works with PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) Sustainable Business Solutions Practice. Prior to joining PwC, Lucas was the Forestry and Timber Sales Manager for Triton Logging for two years. He earned his Masters of Forestry from the Yale School of Forestry and the Environment in 2003 and was a PERC enviropreneur fellow in 2003. He can be contacted at james.g.lucas@ca.pwc.com.

 Visit www.tritonlogging.com for more information.

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James Lucas is a professional forester in British Columbia where he works with PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) Sustainable Business Solutions Practice. Prior to joining PwC, Lucas was the Forestry and Timber Sales Manager for Triton Logging for two years. He earned his Masters of Forestry from the Yale School of Forestry and the Environment in 2003...
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