There's buried treasure in Seattle, and lawmakers want a say in who gets their hands on it. A forest of old-growth trees is submerged in...

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OLYMPIA — There’s buried treasure in Seattle, and lawmakers want a say in who gets their hands on it.

A forest of old-growth trees is submerged in Lake Washington, perfectly preserved and possibly worth a small fortune. Under a bill proposed in the state Senate, this underwater timber could be harvested to raise money for the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture at the University of Washington.

Some of the sunken trees fell into the lake in landslides long ago, said Michal Rechner, an environmental planner at the state Department of Natural Resources. Others are “sinkers” that fell off barges on Lake Washington when logging was in its heyday in King County.

“The sunken forest is a part of our natural history and culture,” said state Sen. Ken Jacobsen, D-Seattle, a UW alumnus and sponsor of the legislation.

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No one knows how many trees are in the lake, Rechner said, but there could be valuable 1,000-year-old cedars.

The timber doesn’t rot because there is so little oxygen in deep water, he said. In some cases, the sap gets replaced with minerals in water, making it harder, and ultimately better for making fine instruments and furniture.

Bob Rouleau, a diving consultant for Ballard Diving and Salvage Inc., has been researching sunken logs for 20 years. He believes underwater logging is better for the environment than any other type of logging.

“Here’s all these logs here. Why don’t we use what we have on the bottom instead of cutting what’s on top?” he said. “Isn’t that what recycling and reusing is all about?”

The process for recovering the logs is relatively simple, although sometimes dangerous, said Rouleau. Depending on the depth of the water, a company would send scuba divers in hard hats down to attach lines to the trees. The trees would then be pulled up to the surface and onto a barge. For deeper water, a crane is used to pick out the timber.

Rouleau estimated that the cost for excavating the logs would be $5,000 to $6,000 a day for crew and equipment. He said 30 to 50 logs — each possibly worth thousands of dollars — could be recovered in a typical day.

To Rouleau’s knowledge, the only underwater logging happening in Washington state is illegal ventures.

In 1992, the Department of Natural Resources caught someone illegally recovering submerged logs from Lake Washington. Over 14 months before he was caught, he had pulled out $160,000 worth of timber, Rechner said.

While Jacobsen’s bill outlines where profit from the timber would go, it doesn’t address how the logging process is to be done — and there is uncertainty over whether even valuable logs would be worth the difficulty of extracting them and meeting environmental regulations.

Michigan started a program in 2000 to harvest trees submerged in the Great Lakes, but not a single log has been recovered, said Martin Jannereth of Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality.

Jannereth said only six permits for the program were approved by both state and federal governments. Environmental concerns, such as loss of fish habitat and spreading contaminated sediment, were additional deterrents.

He said most companies that performed the procedure are no longer in operation. However, because of the potentially high value of the trees, there is still an interest, he said.

“It might be the adventure and speculation — although some might find it’s not as profitable as expected,” he said. “It has yet to be seen in Michigan.”

Jacobsen’s proposal has already generated the interest of a company that specializes in salvaging “sinker” logs on a commercial scale in British Columbia. Stewart Mossman, operator of Marwood Enterprises, said he spotted the bill proposal on the Internet and contacted Jacobsen immediately to express interest in the job.

Christina Siderius: 360-236-8169 or csiderius@seattletimes.com. The bill discussed in this story is Senate Bill 5017; its progress can be tracked at the legislature’s Web site, www.leg.wa.gov