Georgia state Sen. Tommie Williams, R-Lyons, long has supported legalizing "deadhead logging," the practice of salvaging old-growth logs from river bottoms, saying it would create jobs and feed the state's coffers.
The timber dates back to the 19th century, when logs were lashed together as rafts for transport downstream. Some would break loose and sink.
Preserved underwater in low-oxygen river bottoms, deadhead logs are prized for uses such as flooring and paneling because of the wood's tight grain, rich color and sometimes interesting grain patterns.
Williams introduced Senate Bill 362, which would authorize Georgia to auction off sections of the Oconee, Flint, Ocmulgee and Altamaha rivers for harvesting of deadhead logs. The bill passed the Senate recently in a 37-12 vote and now is in the House.
Environmental groups oppose the bill, saying the logs provide habitat for fish and other aquatic creatures, and that removing sunken timber could stir up sediment and pollutants.
It remains to be seen how many divers would bid to pull deadhead logs out of Georgia's river bottoms. No one applied for permits when the state legalized deadhead logging from 2006 to 2008 on the Altamaha and Flint rivers.
The romance of scavenging for submerged logs inspired the producers of "Ax Men," a reality TV show on the History Channel, to film deadhead loggers in an episode titled "Swamp Man Logging."
The reality, according to those who know the business, is that deadhead logging is hard and potentially dangerous work for which there's no formal schooling. A deadhead logger needs to be a jack of all trades who knows how to dive for and find sunken logs in rivers murky with sediment. Deadhead loggers who maximize profits don't just sell raw logs - they themselves mill the logs, dry the boards in a kiln and market the wood.
"It's kind of a tricky business," said Jerry Nuttal of Leatherwood Inc., a historic renovation business in Fairview, Tenn., west of Nashville. Nuttal has about 2,000 board feet of sycamore, oak and poplar salvaged from the Tennessee River that he bought years ago.
"First of all, it's extremely labor-intensive," Nuttal said. "It's pretty difficult to ID the species when you're underwater. Once the material comes up, it's got to be handled. If it's not done right, it can ruin the wood."
Florida is probably the state with the most deadhead loggers, said Sara Merritt, who's been in charge of that state's program since 2002.
She said 14 logging operations now have permits and are active in the entire state, and they take only about 100 logs a year. Using an electric winch attached to a boat to pull a log up against the suction of the river bottom's sand or mud is slow going, she said.
"It's such a long process, [sediment] pretty much settles out," Merritt said. "I think the state of Florida has managed to allow this without too much detriment to the environment."
In her years on the job, Merritt said, the worst environmental impacts occurred when loggers dragged logs up river banks when they should have used paved boat ramps.
"Those are the only issues we've documented," she said. The river banks had to be replanted with vegetation, she said.
Many of Florida's deadhead loggers have been at it for generations, Merritt said.
"They grew up doing it. They don't know anything else," she said.