But it can be quite dangerous to harvest the submerged lumber, so Coast EcoTimber has partnered with a local company of divers in Panama, who guyline each tree individually, then go underwater with submersible hydraulic chainsaws. Once the tree is cut, it shoots up to the surface where the crew is waiting to hook it onto a barge.
While Ms. Husby has gone down to Panama quite a few times – her latest visit was three weeks ago and she plans to return next week – her “right-hand man,” Arnie Dewit, lives there full-time, managing Coast EcoTimbers Panamian interests. Mr. Dewit was actually the one who first discovered this treasure trove of exotic hardwood. Ms. Husby sent him down to investigate the possibility of importing the submerged wood, since the idea fit the company's business model so well. So far, they’ve invested about $260,000 in the small Panamian company by purchasing a few barges and equipment for the harvesting process.
“I think they liked that we’re a green company, too, and that we see the big picture,” Ms. Husby adds.
Surprisingly, there haven't been many political barriers to doing business in Panama. Ms. Husby says the Minister of Commerce and the Mayor of Cologne have been “very receptive” to Coast EcoTimber's foray into Panama. They even had a guitar made out of the Panamian wood and Haida Gwaii's Sitka spruce, and gave it to the Minister of Commerce, who presented it to the Panama's president.
“So they’re all talking about us. It’s really exciting.”
It was, however, a rigorous process to bring the first shipment of wood into Canada in June: the company had to work with an engineering firm to identify some of the “mystery logs.”
“Unlike B.C. with the reservoirs, there might be 1940s aerial photographs to show you the micro topography, to show you what trees were where. We don’t have that there.”
Then all of the wood had to be fumigated.
“And that’s good, I like that Agriculture Canada is tough on people, because you could bring stuff in and if people don’t fumigate, all of a sudden we’ve got their insects in our trees,” Ms. Husby points out.
She also brought a Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) consultant down to Panama to have the hardwood certified, which means the material qualifies for LEED-certified projects. “It’s a big process – they make it very difficult – and we got it.”
Then it took about eight months of testing to figure out how to properly kiln dry and treat the wood, and what the material could be used for. Coast EcoTimber made the salvaged hardwood into veneer, timber, flooring, decking and siding, just to investigate the potential of the product.
“Before I put my (rear end) on the line, I really needed to prove the model,” Ms. Husby explains.
She ultimately decided to have the product shipped back home to be processed. “For me, I need to minimize my risks, and B.C. knows wood.”
A lot of time and effort has gone into getting this aspect of Coast EcoTimber's business up and running, and Ms. Husby admits there has been a huge learning curve.
“I don’t have some fancy-pants business degree, and so I’m sure it’s costing me more money than it maybe should have, but it is a labour of love, and we’re honoured to be working with this wood.”
The first shipment, which arrived in B.C. in June, contained about 7,000 board feet of the Panamian hardwood. Three more containers have followed since, and so far, Coast EcoTimber has shipped and processed roughly $350,000 worth of product. The finished decking and Zapatero siding sells for about $5.75 per board foot, while huge, raw, kiln-dried slabs sell for about $10 a board foot, though pricing depends on quantities. Now that Ms. Husby and her team are completely confident in the product, they are ready to move ahead “full-bore,” and they are fielding calls from people around the world who are interested in learning more about the product and how it can be used.