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A new life for waste from Michigan's lumbering era

The lumbering boom in Michigan in the 1800s made some people very rich.

It also left a lot of waste behind. 

Terry Heatlie and I took a walk in the mud on the south side of Muskegon Lake.

“We don’t have to go very far to see slabwood – I see some sticking out there. Slabwood is what was left over when they squared off the logs to make planks. So, this is the outside of the log, and back in the 1800s, apparently they had no use for that, so they just threw it in the water.”

There are piles of this wood poking up out of the water.

Heatlie is a habitat restoration specialist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

He says a little bit of wood can actually be good shelter for fish.  But when there’s this much slabwood, it’s not so great.

“Where you see extensive areas of wood and in some cases, sawdust, has just been dumped throughout time and has essentially suffocated the bottom so you don’t get the natural benthic community – you don’t get those organisms that live in the sediment existing there – they’re suffocated,” he says.

It can affect the little creatures fish like to eat, and Heatlie says if there’s too much wood and sawdust on the bottom, fish can also have trouble making babies.

So Heatlie and the project team want to get this slabwood out of Muskegon Lake. So far, they’ve dredged more than 180,000 metric tons of stuff out of the lake, and most of it was slabwood, wood chips and sawdust.

But one of the stickiest issues is… what to do with it?

“There are places that use material likes this for energy – they burn it. But we couldn’t find anybody that wanted the quantities we were pulling out of here,” he says.

So, Heatlie says they had to throw most of it in a landfill.  He says they’re trying to find better uses for the rest of it that’s still in the lake.

But Terry Heatlie did stumble across one person who wants all the slabwood he can bring her.

Victoria Fox’s basement is full of painted fish. There are trout and sockeye salmon on an easel and a sturgeon on the pool table.

Fox made all of these fish out of slabwood.  She started by hanging out at sawmills to get their scrap lumber. But then one day she met Terry Heatlie at the Ann Arbor Farmers Market.

“He said, 'boy can I bring you some wood!' And I said, perfect, bring it.”

So, ever since, the scientist has been hauling sopping wet slabwood from Muskegon Lake across the state to the artist.

The piece of slabwood Fox is working with today was so soaked, it took two months to dry out.

She’s drawn the outline of a golden trout on the front. She cuts out the fish, then she’ll paint it and spray it with a clear polyurethane finish.  

Fox says a lot of people ask her to make fish that look like The One That Got Away.

“I laugh with the guys that stop – I tell them they’re male fantasy fish because they say it was THIS big. Sure it was."

This spring, the NOAA team will dredge another 67,000 cubic yards of logging debris out of Muskegon Lake. Most of it’s slabwood.

It might be a whole lot more than Victoria Fox can make use of… but she insists she’s up for it.

“Mostly I like being part of what they do, and that’s, you know, cleaning up the lakes. I really, I feel privileged that he came to me, and I’m happy to do whatever they bring to me, I’ll continue,” says Fox.

Rebecca Williams is senior editor in the newsroom, where she edits stories and helps guide news coverage.