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Underwater logging back, within limits

Once banned, "deadhead" logging extracts old, valuable wood from river bottoms.

By JULIE HAUSERMAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 26, 2000


TALLAHASSEE -- Florida lumberjacks will once again be allowed to pull century-old pine logs from the state's northern river bottoms to create one-of-a-kind wood floors, cabinets and paneling for the well-to-do.

Florida banned the underwater logging operations four months ago, after environmentalists complained that sloppy logging crews were harming wild rivers.

But Tuesday, Gov. Jeb Bush and the Florida Cabinet voted to allow the so-called "deadhead loggers" to continue their lucrative harvests. Now, though, they'll have to abide by some new environmental restrictions.

The heavy pine logs that lay on the bottoms of Florida's river beds are the last remnants of a longleaf pine forest that once covered the Southeast. In the 1880s, crews cleared the mammoth trees, rafted the logs together and floated them down the rivers. Some of the logs sank, and they remain perfectly preserved under the tea-colored water.

The wood -- often called "heart pine" -- is hard and insect resistant. The market for deadhead lumber from Southern rivers has boomed in recent years, with the rich wood used in everything from the mansion of computer billionaire Bill Gates to the corporate offices of the television show This Old House. Deadhead logs are milled into flooring for million-dollar beachfront homes in Walton County.

A single log can fetch as much as $3,000.

Deadhead loggers were banned from state waterways for 25 years because of environmental concerns. Then, in 1998, rising demand led Gov. Lawton Chiles and the Cabinet to open the rivers again to the underwater logging crews. But river-lovers complained that the loggers were hurting underwater habitat and clearing away today's trees to haul the old logs over the riverbanks.

Environmentalists entered the fray and urged Bush and the Cabinet to end the practice. Now, the Florida Wildlife Federation and The Nature Conservancy have signed off on the state's new agreement, which involves stepped-up oversight.

"We think this is a good balance between mining the resource and protecting the environment," said Marianne Gengenbach of The Nature Conservancy.

Under the agreement, the state will make every logger pay a $6,000 annual fee, and the state Department of Environmental Protection will use the money to do random inspections of the logging operations. The state will scour the rivers to figure out which logs can come up and which should be left where they are.

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