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Forestry and timber stories

High-end market loves Hydrowood

Edition 183_Hydrowood_Salvage

Innovative business Hydrowood — and the government decision-makers who backed it — have struck an unusual jackpot in Tasmania’s man-made lakes.

They are dragging trees from the chilly depths that contain timber that has become sought-after in the top end of the timber market.

And they calculate that they have enough of it to maintain supply for perhaps another 30 years.

The Managing Director of SFM Forest Products, Andrew Morgan, said 50km-long Lake Pieman, where his company has launched its operations, could be hiding 80,000 tonnes of in-demand timber in its tannin-darkened waters.

Hydro Tasmania dammed the Pieman River in 1986 to produce more of the renewable power that was driving hydro-industrialisation.

The Pieman Valley forests that were soon to be submerged were selectively logged, but it was a rushed job and much valuable timber was left standing.

The once-dominant eucalypts still raise limbs through the lake’s surface and they are a valuable resource.

But such under-storey species as myrtle, sassafras, celery-top pine and Huon pine have increased enormously in value since the 1980s as more than half of Tasmania’s land surface has been progressively declared off-limit to loggers.

The last major lock-up, the 2013 Forest Peace Deal, caused a new spike in the value of minor species wood.

The under-storey trees can’t be seen from above the surface so Mr Morgan and his team needed to get creative.

“Our harvesting machinery mirrors forest operations on the land except that the 45-tonne harvester sits on a GPS-positioned barge,” Mr Morgan said.

Attached to the harvester is a long hydraulic extension arm that can reach down to depths of 26 metres.

The company is investing in a new sonar system that will enable them to work at greater depths.

“The telescopic harvesting arm is based on a crane’s design except it doesn’t need as much force because it’s not pushing up,” Mr Morgan said.

On the end of the extension arm is a huge red claw that grabs the base of a tree and then cuts through it with a hydraulic chainsaw.

The operator needs to be versed in forestry methods and is required to hold a marine master’s certificate.

The Hydrowood founders reasoned that logging skills were easier to acquire than a maritime certificate so they recruited qualified skipper, Will Gordon.

After a single day of operations, Mr Gordon told the ABC’s Fiona Breen: “I think I’ve worked it out. I’ve only done it 10 times.

“You grab the log sort of loosely and feel your way down, grab it tightly, put a little bit of upward pressure on there … when the log [is cut it] comes up a little bit.”

Before investing in their equipment, the Tasmanian team had researched similar underwater harvesting projects in British Columbia.

“What we saw was that you can do this, it is possible,” Mr Morgan said. “We then went and approached Hydro Tasmania and the Tasmanian Government about a feasibility study and they funded us.

“We went out and proved the wood was sound, that there was technology out there to extract the timber safely.

“The advanced manufacturing skills of some Tasmanian partners were really important to us. We worked with Taylor Brothers, Plastic Fabrications, William Adams and Cawthorns to build the barge.”

The Federal Government helped out with $5 million in seed funding and as Mr Morgan said "the rest is history".

The company expects to work Lake Pieman for three or four more years and has identified five other man-made lakes with significant submarine resource.

“We’re probably thinking that there’s 20 years’ worth of resource there, at least,” Mr Morgan said. “So we’re talking about tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of tonnes of timber.”

Lake Pieman, with its ageless surrounding forests, feels a long way from anywhere.

“We’re on the west coast,” Mr Morgan said. “There’s lots of mines and there’s a lot of mine support here … those guys have been fantastic.”

Salvaged logs are moved to Wynyard on the north-west coast for milling and then to Exeter, in the Tamar Valley, for kiln drying.

“There’s obviously a lot of transport stages in that supply chain and it’s been quite challenging,” Mr Morgan said.

The kiln-dried timber’s quality is as good as that of land-harvested timber.

“Once it was inundated it became frozen in time. So that timber hasn’t deteriorated … it’s pretty much a beautiful piece of special species,” Mr Morgan said.

“We’re pulling out myrtle, blackwood, celery top pine, sassafras and we’re also getting a bit of Huon pine and a little bit of eucalypt.

“So it’s those key Tasmanian species, those ones that furniture designers and architects really want.

“We’re angling at high-end architectural and appearance-grade timbers. So furniture makers, joiners, architects, interior fitouts … those [applications] where the story really plays heavily.”

The story — the timber’s provenance — is arguably as valuable as the product itself.

“That’s really one of our strengths … along with the reclaimed environmental tick that it gets as well,” Mr Morgan said.

“There’s a novel extraction method, but also the fact that it’s on the rugged west coast.

“It’s ethical, it’s sustainable. It fits the reclaimed/recycled market niche.

“And then you’ve got the overlay of Tasmanian specialty timber which is revered, anyway.

“It’s resonating with people around the world. It’s really quite exciting.”

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Image courtesy of the ABC

1 May 2017, Edition 183

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