20 Million Boardfeet Under the Sea?

By Beacon Staff

Submerged logs, decades-old and buried deep in the muck along the lakebed floor of Somers Bay, continue to be pursued by one company that believes it’s a resource valuable enough to undergo years of legal hurdles and an involved extraction process. That pursuit takes another step this month as North Shore Development LLC meets with the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation to begin a review of the environmental effects of removing the logs.

“It is a really high-profile project and one that is a little unique,” Greg Poncin, Kalispell unit manager for the DNRC, said. “We’re just trying to do this with the most responsible method possible.”

The public comment period for the log removal, which ended Jan. 28, drew 17 comments, only three of which favored the project. The rest either opposed the log removal on general principle, Poncin said, or questioned how the operation would impact water quality, fisheries and aquatic habitat, and shoreline erosion.

“We have a lot of questions and not very many answers,” Robin Steinkraus, executive director of the Flathead Lakers, said. “We don’t know what the problems might be but we suspect there might be some that require investigation.”

North Shore’s push to remove the logs has been stalled for nearly two years and is only recently making progress once again. In 2006, the DNRC stopped North Shore salvagers from extracting logs in shallower water when it was unclear whether the state or the company owned the logs. Excluding tribal boundaries, the Flathead Lakebed floor, like all navigable waterways in the state, is property of Montana.

Before a summary judgment was issued, North Shore and the state Land Board worked out a settlement in October where submerged logs marked by the “circle-n” brand belong to North Shore, by virtue of its predecessor, the Somers Lumber Company. The settlement gives North Shore the exclusive right to salvage logs in the north end of Flathead Lake for a cost of $21,000 per year, and as long as the company limited its work to five acres at a time. North Shore would also pay DNRC for any unmarked logs it brings up, according to a sliding scale.

The obvious question raised by North Shore’s project is why, in an area with immense timber resources, is it spending the time and money to take logs from the floor of Flathead Lake? The answer lies in the history and quality of the logs, according to Jim Cancroft of forestry consulting company Northwest Management Inc., which is handling the salvage operation for North Shore.

The logs were floated down the Flathead and Swan rivers in the early part of the 1900s and stored in the water awaiting milling in Somers. Those logs that sank are what North Shore is now pursuing, due to a size and quality superior to the timber harvested at present. Cancroft is betting there will be a market for these logs, not only because of their beauty, but their historical significance.

“They’re big, clean, beautiful logs,” he said, “unique logs that came out of the Flathead Valley at the turn of the 20th century.”

“We already milled a number of the logs a couple of years ago and they’re beautiful beams,” he added.

Cancroft’s initial plan is to have divers secure airbags to the logs, then float them to the surface, but he admitted there is still much to figure out. The depressed housing market is also likely to make buyers willing to pay top dollar for the unique logs.

Environmental concerns persist as well. Steinkraus and the Flathead Lakers wonder if the log salvage will churn up contamination from creosote and heavy metals on the floor of Somers Bay left over from the Burlington Northern tie plant, a Superfund cleanup site.

Dr. Mark S. Lorang, a research assistant professor at the Flathead Lake Biological Station, emphasized that he and his colleagues don’t oppose the project, but he wonders if North Shore intends to go after any of the dead trees stabilizing the north shore of the lake.

“That’s what been naturally healing the erosion process,” Lorang said. “Pulling them out would be very detrimental.”

According to Poncin, North Shore would only go after logs, and leave downed trees alone. Nor would logs or trees along the lakeshore be considered, since the oxygen exposure has already damaged the timber. As for the other possible concerns, that’s what the environmental review is aimed at figuring out, Poncin said, adding that he hopes to have a draft completed by the end of spring. And the state Land Board retains final authority over any land use license issued by the DNRC.

In the meantime, North Shore’s unusual pursuit of the underwater logs remains a compelling story in Montana and beyond.

“It’s amazing how many calls I’ve from people just wondering about the process from all over the country,” Cancroft said. “I’m as interested as anybody to see how the whole thing plays out and if it comes to fruition.”

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