Northwest Florida Daily News
August 8, 1999

Rivers flow with timber, profits, protests

"Dead-head" loggers are protective of their lucrative trade, earning up to $3,000 per log, but environmentalists say the practice harms rivers.

By DUWAYNE ESCOBEDO Daily News Staff Writer

BAKER -- Pushing a custom-made pontoon boat just off the banks of the Blackwater River into waist-deep water, Alton Reddick gets ready to begin his day of logging. For almost two weeks, the 55-year-old Bruce resident has hardly strayed from where he ties up his boat. But already, 33 telephone pole-sized timbers lay stacked in shallow water near the Blackwater's edge.

He's not your typical lumberjack.

Reddick, who has lived all his life on the Choctawhatchee River in Walton County, is what's known as a "dead-head logger." He has been one ever since he turned 15.

The practice requires retrieving pre-cut timbers, or "dead heads," that sank throughout Northwest Florida riverbeds as much as 150 years ago.

Timber companies that were clear-cutting virtually the entire range of virgin longleaf pine and bald cypress stands between the 1850s and 1920s left the logs behind when they broke off rafts that were floating them down the rivers to nearby sawmills.

Reddick and Andy Coleman, who are working together and formed a company, River Bend Trading Co., are happy to pick up the premium wood, which once again is in high demand.

"This is the way I make my living right now. I don't want to go back to iron work," said Reddick, who worked for Iron Workers Union Mobile Local 798. "The state shut us down three four years ago, arresting a lot of people for this."

ENVIRONMENTAL FEARS

Many environmentalists maintain dead-head logging should still be a crime.

Opponents of the practice fear removing the timber will lead to massive erosion resulting in poorer water quality, and to permanently damaged plant and wildlife habitats, which would harm mussels, gulf striped bass, endangered gulf sturgeon and other creatures.

The state stopped issuing permits and banned dead-head logging in 1974 when the Game and Freshwater Fish Commission concluded it disrupted or permanently damaged the places where fish lived.

Because the rivers run through so many rural areas, enforcement was rare and the logging continued.

After years of petitioning and observation of logging operations, however, state environmental agencies dropped their opposition.

And in January, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection began allowing recovery of the precut timber from riverbeds again.

For a $5,500 permit to work on the riverbeds owned by the state and a $500 permit to dredge, dead-head loggers can retrieve the coveted wood from approximately 20-mile stretches of rivers. After a year, the state plans to evaluate the practice and decide whether to let it continue.

So far about a dozen permits have been obtained between Pensacola and Jacksonville, with the first issued in April. Reddick and Coleman received the first permit in Okaloosa County, getting permission to pick up logs on the Blackwater River between the Alabama and Santa Rosa County lines.

The former Game and Freshwater Fish Commission, now called the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, has said pre-cut lumber isn't as attractive to fish as trees blown into the water, which still have their tops and roots intact. And since sand partially covers many of the logs, they become even less appealing to fish.

But Jim Williams, a U.S. Geological Survey biologist at the Florida Caribbean Science Center in Gainesville, calls the dead-head logging permitting "absolutely negligent," and fears destruction to the rivers and water life.

"They don't have any good information right now to make any good evaluation," Williams said. "It may set off an erosion event going miles upstream. These things may have been put there artificially 150 years ago but now they have become part of the river bottom. You don't just go rip the place up."

Gordon Roberts, a leading DEP dead-head logging authority, points out that a host of restrictions, such as prohibiting lumber recovery from river banks or bends, will reduce damage from the activity. He adds the permits will help to impose more self-policing.

"There are so many rivers and so many private landings to catch someone in the act illegally is awfully hard," Roberts said. "But if you have to buy a permit and now you see someone, you're going to turn them in pretty darn quick. But I won't tell you there still won't be some illegal harvest going on."

Tiana Burton, Sierra Club Northwest Florida Group conservation chairwoman, worries there's a lack of oversight, though. "Sure there's a lot of conditions, but I'm concerned they're not really being observed," she said. "You're giving somebody a permit for 20 miles of river and there really isn't any good monitoring."

Eric Buckelew, who's in charge of the logging permits for DEP's Northwest District, and other biologists are making spot checks and doing testing.

"We'll see what kind of damage it's causing the environment and see how things work," he said. "It's an industry that's been going on for a long time. But until we get some control over what's going on, we really don't have any concrete data one way or another."

To Reddick and Coleman, dead-head logging makes environmental sense. Reddick says the rivers ran 20 to 30-feet deep during his childhood but have filled up with sand, and removal of the lumber will open up the rivers again.

Adds Coleman: "Every log we retrieve is saving one out in the rainforest."

PULLING UP THE PINE

Meanwhile, their excitement builds as a winch on the boat twists and pulls up a partially submerged 32-foot "heart" pine, which the old-growth, first generation longleaf pine is called, from its oxygen-free underwater sanctuary.

During the tug-of-war, the winch's cable frays and then snaps. But after about 30 minutes, the heart pine pops up, revealing a glossy, rose color.

"This is the finest pine in the world," said Coleman, with a wide grin. "It's gorgeous."

The lumber is a treasure, too, because it fetches from $2.50 to $10 a board foot. A board foot equals a piece 1-inch thick and 1-foot square.

A "curly" pine, one with lots of knots on the outside that give the wood grain a swirly pattern, brings even more money, retailing for as much as $51 a board foot.

One recovered heart pine, which is dried in a kiln for up to two weeks before being cut, can contain between 200 to 300 board feet. In other words, one log can bring in $500 to $3,000, depending on its size and quality.

More than 100 years ago, longleaf pine stands stretched over about 85 million acres from Virginia to Texas. Today, an estimated 5,000 acres remain, 1,000 of those in Florida.

Northern and European timber companies moved in and essentially clear-cut the prime timber during a 40-year period, making heart pine virtually extinct by 1910.

The heart pine was declared "King's wood" and considered an excellent all-purpose timber used for ship-building and home-building all over colonial American and Europe. It became the top wood of choice because its tight rings, hardness and high resin made it resistant to fire, water and insects. Plus, it is very durable and has rich colors, ranging from dark golden yellow to red.

The only way to get the 20- to 40-foot-long logs to sawmills along the coast was to drag them by oxen and steam engine to the closest rivers. There, loggers tied them together in rafts, usually as wide as the river and five to seven miles long.

During the trip, many sank. With no way to retrieve them and lumber so plentiful, they were forgotten. No one knows exactly how much timber remains underwater.

A TREASURE OF WOOD

William Rosasco III, whose family owned one of Florida's largest sawmills in Bagdad, likes the new permitting system because he believes it will help him to better recoup some lost timber that belonged to his family's sawmill. Much of the lumber still contains his family's brands and he has leased the rights to dead-head loggers for about $300 per 1,000 board feet.

"So much of it has been stolen," said the Milton builder and developer. "It has been a considerable financial loss to us. As long as some of it has been lying down there, it's exciting to see some of our brands now coming up (legally)."

Having floated up and down the Blackwater River picking out dead heads jutting out seemingly left and right, Reddick marvels at how much timber the river still claims that is just waiting to become flooring, molding, stair parts or furniture.

"All my life cypress was in demand and no one was interested in pine," said Reddick, who sold dead-head cypress for restoration projects at George Washington's Mount Vernon estate and Thomas Jefferson's Poplar Forest octagonal house.

"You'd pick pine up and drop it. You couldn't sell it. There's quite a bit left, but not like it used to be. There's probably millions (of board feet), but we'll never see it all."

 

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