Lake in the California Sierra Nevadas
Debate over Clear-cutting in the California Sierra Nevadas
In the Sierras, A Raging Debate Over Clear-Cutting
To 'Red' Emmerson, Leveling Trees and Planting Anew Helps Nature Do Its Job Others See Only Destruction
By JIM CARLTON
Staff Reporter of The Wall Street Journal
May 27, 2004; Page A1
ARNOLD, Calif. -- High in the Sierra Nevada, Warren Alford hiked from the cool shade of towering pines into a sweltering clearing where the forest had been leveled by logging crews.
In the moonscape of stumps sprawling more than half a mile across a hillside, a few Ponderosa pine saplings poked up from the debris -- part of a new tree farm planted by a logging company. "This is utter destruction," said the 38-year-old Mr. Alford, a fourth-generation Sierra Nevadan whose home lies just over some hills.
The clear-cuts are the work of timber baron Archie "Red" Emmerson, who readily concedes they aren't pretty. "But if you just forget about it for a while," says the 75-year-old billionaire, whose closely held Sierra Pacific Industries is California's biggest private landowner, "it'll look green and beautiful again. This old earth is pretty forgiving."
With California's signature mountain range at stake, timber interests and environmentalists are in a pitched battle over the merits of clear-cutting, the practice of felling entire swaths of trees.
The Sierra battle plays into a broader national debate: how to manage Western forests that are prone to giant blazes after more than a century of fire suppression and logging that, in many places, has left the weakest trees behind. President Bush's Healthy Forests Initiative is aimed at boosting logging of public forests to reduce the fire threat. The plan has been attacked by environmentalists as a gift to loggers, such as Mr. Emmerson, who also ranks as the Sierra's biggest logger on public lands.
Supporters of clear-cutting say chopping down big swaths of trees actually produces hardier forests than selectively cutting the strongest trees. That has left stands of weak and old timber that are more prone to fire, they say. After decades in which humans have blocked the natural regenerative cycle of forest fires, they say, clear-cutting mimics the effect of natural wildfire: it opens up overgrown tree stands to sunlight and allows the trees that remain to grow more fire-resistant.
Mr. Emmerson says clear-cutting is particularly needed in the heavily and haphazardly logged Sierras. His solution, which he calls "even-age management," calls for reducing messy modern forests to clean slates, and then replanting tidier versions.
His plan is endorsed by the California Department of Fire and Forestry Protection, which helps oversee logging in the state. "It is a removal, but it is also a renewal of the resource," says Bill Snyder, one of the department's deputy directors.
Each year for the next century, Mr. Emmerson envisions clear-cutting about 10,000 acres of the 1.5 million acres of woodland his company owns -- ultimately razing and replanting an area bigger than Yosemite National Park. "By clear-cutting," he says in an interview, "we're planting superior trees and getting rid of the bad stuff. It's no different than farming."
Yet the two-mile-high spine of the nation's most populous state isn't a farm, and Mr. Emmerson is no ordinary farmer. The Sierra range, with some one million inhabitants along its 400-mile ridgeline, is one of California's fastest-growing regions -- a haven for retirees and urban transplants and the recreational refuge for more than 20 million coastal city dwellers.
Mr. Emmerson's opponents, which include environmentalists as well as many recreational users and residents of the Sierras, argue that, far from helping forests, his use of chainsaws and herbicides to replace dense mixed-vegetation stands with one or two types of saplings will yield plantations that lack biological diversity and are more likely to burn down. They don't oppose all logging, they say, but they prefer selective cutting to the clearing of entire swaths. They call Mr. Emmerson's tactics nothing more than a money grab by one of the nation's last timber titans.
In the dusty clear-cut above the mountain town of Arnold, Mr. Alford points to the stump of a tree that, judging from its rings, was more than 200 years old when Sierra Pacific felled it in 2002. Nearby, a spring that once gurgled beneath the forest canopy trickles under the hot sun. The warmed water feeds into a creek where Mr. Alford used to fish for rainbow trout as a kid. Now, he worries the rising water temperature from such clear-cuts, and sediment washing off the denuded hillside in the rains, will make local fishing a memory.
"It just doesn't get any worse than what Red Emmerson is doing," says Chad Hanson, executive director of the John Muir Project, an anti-clear-cutting group based in Cedar Ridge, Calif.
Elsewhere, the use of clear-cuts has generally declined in recent years amid opposition by environmental and community groups. They're still widely used on private tree plantations such as in the Pacific Northwest, but even there state and federal regulators have imposed more restrictions over the years to limit the impact to streams and other areas.
Mr. Emmerson argues that, in the short term, clear-cutting actually costs Sierra Pacific more than just plucking the best trees -- an extra $12 million to $15 million annually in costs such as removing underbrush and planting saplings. But he says that over the long term, clear-cutting is crucial to maximizing his company's profits. His foresters estimate that clear-cutting a hillside and then replanting it with Ponderosa pines will yield harvestable trees in 80 years, instead of the 120 years the trees would take to mature on more cluttered land with less sunlight.
Mr. Emmerson is the Sam Walton of the Western woods: a grandfatherly figure whose jovial modesty belies his political aggressiveness and business smarts. Like the late Wal-Mart founder, Mr. Emmerson is relentlessly hands-on, especially inside Sierra Pacific's sawmills. Workers there are accustomed to having him pull up alongside them to lend a hand on the line. He wears jeans, flannel shirts and work boots. Everyone calls him "Red," a nickname he acquired as a red-headed kid. His office has a handsaw, but no computer.
"Sometimes I'll see Red dirtier than I am," says Greg Thom, manager of a Sierra Pacific door-frame-making factory, where Mr. Emmerson recently stopped for some shop talk with sweaty workers.
Ranked 195th on the most recent Forbes 400 list of wealthiest Americans -- which estimated his fortune at $1.2 billion -- Mr. Emmerson lives in a valley outside Redding, Calif., in a 50-year-old, 1,800-square-foot ranch house. He trolls the mountains in a 2000 Chevy Silverado pickup with 85,000 miles on it. He hunts for parking at the company's Anderson, Calif., headquarters like everyone else.
"You get more out of a person who likes you than one who doesn't," Mr. Emmerson says, bounding up stairs two at a time to inspect another lumber mill.
He learned the timber trade from the ground up. Expelled from a boarding school in Washington state for pinning a condom to a bulletin board, he moved to Northern California to help his father, a sawmill worker, start the company that became Sierra Pacific. They leased their first mill in 1949 with $10,000 in borrowed money and worked to repay the loan by sawing trees themselves with a small crew.
Except for a stint in the Korean War as a U.S. Marine, Mr. Emmerson has remained in the woods and small mill towns ever since. His hands are rough with calluses. As he has built his company into one of the nation's biggest producers of wood products, making everything from 2-by-4s to windows and doors, he has maintained a firm grip.
In 1969, when he was 40 years old, Mr. Emmerson briefly took Sierra Pacific Industries public. Five years later, he and his family bought back most of the shares they didn't own. "It was a bad experience," Mr. Emmerson recalls. He didn't like constantly having to answer to people on Wall Street, among other things.
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Copyright 2004, The Wall Street Journal
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