LANSING - Countless now-valuable logs sank to the bottom of Michigan's lakes and rivers during the 1800s, when loggers floated their hauls on water due to lack of roads and railroads.
Now proposed legislation would make permits to retrieve them easier to get.
The goal is to eliminate roadblocks for a growing industry, said Chris Bailey, legislative director for Rep. Greg MacMaster, R-Kewadin, the main sponsor.
A typical scene at the Wells Sawmill in Menominee Harbor in Menominee, Mich. in the 1890s. Countless now-valuable logs like these sank to the bottom of Michigan’s lakes and rivers during the timber boom days of the 1800s, when loggers floated their hauls down rivers and into lakes for transport. Proposed state legislation would make permits to retrieve them easier to get. (Photo courtesy of Superior View Studio)
"Submerged logging is a small but growing industry throughout the country, with the majority of it being done in the Southern states. Making it easier to get permits in Michigan will attract more businesses to the state," Bailey said.
Currently, a submerged logging permit requires a $3,500 application fee and $100,000 performance bond and applies only to the Great Lakes.
"The amount of money it takes to get a permit is outrageous. Paying the application fee doesn't guarantee it would be approved, and no one can get the performance bond insured," Bailey said, adding that high fees have discouraged business from applying.
The proposal would lower the application fee to $500 and the performance bond to $20,000.
Also, the proposal would deem permits approved if the Department of Environmental Quality doesn't respond to an application within 30 days.
Its co-sponsors include Reps. Matt Huuki, R-Atlantic Mine; Frank Foster, R-Pellston; Ed McBroom, R-Vulcan; Joel Johnson, R-Clare; Holly Hughes, R-Montague; and Wayne Schmidt, R-Traverse City.
According to Bailey, the present law was intended to apply only to removing logs from the Great Lakes, neglecting the state's vast inland lakes and streams.
Bailey said submerged logs are more valuable than other kinds and are popular for making high-quality furniture.
But Gary Lamberti, chair of the Department of Biological Sciences at Notre Dame University, said making it easier to remove wood from lakes and rivers would be terrible for the environment.
Lamberti said that submerged wood is essential not only to the animals that use it for habitat, but to the food chain as well.
"It jumpstarts the ecological community and it's great for algae and the micro-organisms that start the food chain," Lamberti said, adding that wood also plays more subtle roles, like trapping leaves that fall into the water and making sure they find their way into the food web.
According to Lamberti, many lakes and streams in Michigan have sandy bottoms that don't support the ecosystem as well as wood. "Sand and fine particles are poor for biological activity because it moves around too much.
"We have been working hard to get wood back into streams and lakes. It's shocking to think that this legislation would undo that," Lamberti said.
He said that he has been working all over Michigan to put wood back into lakes and streams, including an effort with the U.S. Forest Service in the Upper Peninsula's Ottawa National Forest.
"These ecosystems have a lot less wood in them than they used to. Our objective is to replenish the wood that has been taken out over time and get the amount back up to historical levels," Lamberti said.
Jim Milne, chief of DEQ's Great Lakes shoreland unit, said there are multiple ways to remove submerged logs, some of which could have a negative environmental impact.
"I've seen people attach floats to logs to get them to the surface or attach chains to the logs and hoist or drag them off the bottom," Milne said.
He said removing submerged logs can stir up sediment on lake and river bottoms, which could adversely impact wildlife living in the water.
"Stirred up sediment could bother fish in the area. There could also be loss of habitat if the logs are being used by fish or other animals. If chains are used to drag the logs onto land, they could damage stream and lake banks," Milne said.
According to Milne, the DEQ has issued 11 permits to three people to remove logs from the Great Lakes, but none since 2003.
He said that inland lakes and streams weren't mentioned in the law because log removal from them is considered dredging, which requires a different permit.
Permit holders haven't been able to start removing submerged logs due to legal and administrative obstacles.
"By law, we couldn't issue permits after 2003. No permit holder has been allowed to start logging yet because the permits still haven't been approved by the federal government and because of a lawsuit brought by various Native-American tribes to stop them," Milne said.
A permit to remove submerged logs from the Great Lakes also needs U.S. Army Corps of Engineers approval.
Milne said the tribes' lawsuit claimed the practice has a negative impact on natural resources. It has been settled, with the court siding with permit holders.
The 11 permits issued by the state are good until Jan. 1, 2013.
Notre Dame's Lamberti said removing some wood from the water is necessary because "it can be a hazard to boats, kayakers and people using the water for recreation. It's not cut and dry and a middle ground needs to be found."
The bill is in the House Natural Resources, Tourism and Outdoor Recreation Committee.