Sunken ?Treasure

Fifth-generation logger 
pursues dream of underwater 
El Dorado

Alana Husby isn’t the first B.C. entrepreneur to dream of making millions from tropical hardwoods submerged in man-made reservoirs. But unlike others, she has actually succeeded in bringing container-loads of the exotic timber to market.

This June, less than two years after embarking on a bid to log parts of Lake Gatun reservoir on the Panama Canal, Husby took delivery of a single 40-foot container of pristine Brazilian teak, Brazilian walnut, espave and zapatero. “It’s the first container of wood from the Panama Canal to ever arrive in Canada,” says Husby, the affable 34-year-old co-owner of Coast Eco Timber. “We’ve got another one coming up now, and we’ve also shipped containers from there to clients in South America and Japan.” 

Husby, a fifth-generation B.C. logger who grew up on Haida Gwaii, hopes to harvest up to 50 containers of wood annually from Lake Gatun once the operation reaches full production. About half that wood will be shipped to Vancouver and turned into high-end flooring, decking, cabinets, furniture and even guitars. The finished products will be showcased in a new 2,000-square-foot Coast Eco studio beneath the Oak Street Bridge that’s slated to open in September.

It’s all part of Husby’s plan to create a “vertically integrated,” eco-friendly forestry firm involved in every step of the process, from harvesting and milling to design, manufacturing and retail sales. Founded by Husby and business partner Arnie Dewitt in 2005, Coast Eco started life as a ragtag operation focused on reselling waste wood scavenged from every imaginable source. “We used beachcombers, stuff from lakes, rivers, old buildings, trees that were cut down in city parks,” she says. “We just started custom-cutting these logs for customers, using whatever mills were nearby.”

The company’s attentions turned to Panama in 2009 when Dewitt suggested tapping into the vast stands of eco-friendly timber that were submerged in Lake Gatun reservoir during construction of the Panama Canal in 1913. Dewitt soon forged a partnership with a Panamanian company that uses scuba-diving lumberjacks equipped with hydraulic chainsaws to harvest underwater timber (which is not waterlogged but instead is preserved perfectly intact by the water, which protects it from air and insects).

The venture required an initial investment of about $200,000, most of it dedicated to chainsaws, barges, manpower and special air bags that are used to float logs to the surface. Coast Eco pays royalties to the Panamanian government based on the volume of wood it harvests each month, and the company is committed to reinvesting its initial profits in the operation, which now employs about 40 people, Husby adds.

Working with a local company allowed Coast Eco to secure government approvals much faster than would have otherwise been possible, Husby says.

Results have not come as quickly for others who have tested similar waters. Based in Saanichton on Vancouver Island, Triton Logging Inc. has spent close to a decade plotting a large-scale logging operation in Ghana’s Lake Volta, home to one of the largest submerged timber reserves in the world. Most of that time has been spent developing and testing a remote-controlled submersible chainsaw dubbed “the sawfish” and negotiating timber agreements with the Ghanaian government, says Triton vice-president of marketing Jim Hayhurst. “We have some sample wood and we’re just starting to ramp up,” he says. “It’s the preparation and planning and consulting that takes up all the time.”

Husby says Coast Eco’s manpower-based harvesting techniques allowed the Panama project to proceed with minimal delays and had the added allure of providing a significant number of local jobs. The challenge, she says, is finding long-term markets for products that are virtually unknown in North America. “It’s slow going because we have to establish new markets for some wood that some people may not have heard of,” she says. “We’re working our tails off to prove this business model.” – Brennan Clarke