Managing Forests for the Future – Sierra Pacific Industries

Archie “Red” Emmerson was a young man working at a saw mill in Arcata, California, when he and his father saw the opportunity to purchase a mill and go into business together.

With a $10,000 loan in 1949, Sierra Pacific Industries was born. To say the business has prospered would be an understatement. Driven by Red’s vision and work ethic, Sierra Pacific is now the nation’s largest private landowner, managing a vast 2.3 million acres of timberland across California and Washington, and one of the country’s largest lumber manufacturers.

Today, Red is 92 years old and continues to work most days from the company’s headquarters in Anderson, California. His son, Mark Emmerson, leads the company as Chief Executive and Chief Financial Officer, representing the third generation of the family business.

“What my father and grandfather started has grown into a multi-billion dollar organization employing 6,000 people,” said Mark. “It’s a big responsibility owning 2.3 million acres, and we don’t take it lightly. We benefit people in the communities around us; we benefit more than 200 species of animals and birds that live on the land; we benefit the environment by sequestering carbon and delivering oxygen.”

Managing vast expanses of forest land requires a long-term approach. Each year, Sierra Pacific plants up to six million new trees, including native species like Douglas fir, white fir, hemlock, ponderosa pine, sugar pine and incense cedar, to help maintain biological diversity. All in all, the company is carbon negative, meaning it sequesters more carbon in its forests than it emits.

“We’re more than sustainable,” said Mark. “We’re growing significantly more timber than we’re cutting every year. We will nearly double our inventory in the next 40 years in California.”

Managing Forests for Wildfire

As the company works to plant trees and invest in healthy forests, Sierra Pacific is also drawing on the latest scientific research to detect dry conditions and alert work crews to the heightened risk of wildfire.

More than 4.3 million acres of California forest land burned in 2020 alone, marking a new record for the state. In January 2022, federal officials unveiled a plan to reduce fire risk on some 50 million acres of forest land through thinning, pruning and controlled burns across the western U.S.

Sierra Pacific TimberDr. Cajun James is the Research and Monitoring Director for Sierra Pacific Industries, having joined the company in 1999 as a recent Ph.D. with a focus on hydrology and watershed science. She has helped Sierra Pacific launch a network of weather stations and remote sensors, which in recent years have been increasingly focused on detecting fire conditions.

“We get about 30,000 daily data points coming into the office here in Anderson, and from that data we run the National Fire Danger Rating Model – this creates the foundation of our fire policy,” said Dr. James. “We send out rankings each day by text, email and phone to all of our operators, so anyone who’s involved with any operation is encompassed under a fire policy.”

Sierra Pacific works proactively with Cal Fire and local firefighting agencies to identify high-risk forest areas and to create shaded fuel breaks, thinned and pruned sections of forest that lower the fire potential while preserving the crown canopy.

Dr. James said that the company’s efforts help protect roads and local communities, especially those in rural areas with limited options for escape when a fire approaches.

“Our weather stations and radio network are the basis of our forest management operational decisions during fire season,” said Dr. James. “We do everything we can to cooperate with the firefighting agencies, whether it be state or federal, to provide information so they can focus on fighting the fire.”

A Partnership in Agriculture

Mike Balok is Vice President of Lending in the Capital Markets group at American AgCredit, specializing in the forest products and lumber business. He started working with the Emmerson family and Sierra Pacific in 1990 as the company worked to finance a large acquisition.

Over that time, Sierra Pacific has partnered with American AgCredit to structure the right financing options and gain insights from a team with deep expertise in agricultural finance.

“What started out as a transactional relationship grew over time to a personal relationship where Mark always takes my calls, and the same thing with me,” said Mike. “He can call me anytime, anywhere, even to ask a quick question. We have a personal rapport with each other and that leads to instant access.”

Now leading the company, Mark Emmerson said that he appreciates working with a lender who understands agriculture and the cyclical nature of the business.

“We have an absolutely wonderful relationship,” said Mark. “I have worked with probably 35 banks in my career and I’ve never dealt with anybody that understands our business better. That’s what I like – a banker who understands our business.”

Planning for the Next 100 Years

Most farmers and agribusiness operators plan in cycles ranging from a season to a few years, depending on the commodity they produce. Sierra Pacific takes a much longer view on their operations and investments, steering the company for decades into the future as forests grow to maturity.

“We have a 100-year sustained yield plan that lays out all of our forest management,” said Ed Murphy, Information and Ecosystem Services Manager at Sierra Pacific. “We were able to demonstrate, for example, that our total harvest will increase by nearly two and a half times over that 100 years, and that level of harvest will be sustainable and will support the wildlife species and fish that live, breed and otherwise use the land.”

Ed has worked at Sierra Pacific for more than 30 years, now managing a team of biologists, botanists and inventory foresters. He said that the company operates responsibly to ensure that there are well-paying jobs and a healthy environment for its thousands of employees, their families and communities.

“Sierra Pacific’s resources are the 6,000 employees that work for the company and make those sustainable, high-quality wood products,” said Ed. “Our planning is setting up those families and their next generations to be able to continue to do this work. I have two grandchildren and their pictures are on my office wall, and I look at them every day. I know that I’m growing them a future.”

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