From humble beginnings traipsing through California’s vast forests with his dad to salvaging wood from forest fires, Red Emmerson has built a logging empire by being cheaper and more aggressive than his rivals….Nicknamed “Red” as a teen for his hair color, Emmerson is happy to reminisce about the many fires from which his Sierra Pacific Industries has profited….the feisty tycoon, who runs the business with his two sons, George, 61, and Mark, 58, makes more money from logging after forest fires than any person in America. When the government sells contracts to cut down trees after fires in national forests—a controversial practice known as post-fire salvage logging—Emmerson buys in at a steep discount, often paying one half to one fourth the price for traditional wood….Sierra Pacific has little competition, thanks to a 1990 law that prohibits bidding from any lumber companies that export logs. That eliminates rivals like publicly traded Weyerhaeuser and Rayonier as well as big Canadian firms.
While Emmerson’s resourcefulness has helped him climb into the top ranks of the world’s wealthiest, critics say these riches have come at the expense of the environment and taxpayers. More than 250 scientists signed a letter asking Congress to protect forests from post-fire logging, saying that it “can set back the forest renewal process for decades.” That’s because it strips the land of nutrients, preventing it from regenerating. Not only is the carbon stored in the charred tree trunks not reabsorbed by the soil—worse, it is released into the atmosphere as greenhouse gas.
“It’s a degraded landscape,” says Chad Hanson, a scientist who studies post-fire logging and whose nonprofit John Muir Project has won injunctions against four Sierra Pacific post-fire contracts. “Fire is not the thing that’s creating areas of devastation and wastelands. It’s logging, especially post-fire logging.”
Sierra Pacific rejects the scientists’ analysis, arguing that the process can speed up recovery. “It’s about extracting the value we can from a bad situation,” says a company spokesperson.
Regardless, logging in national forests is costly for taxpayers, says Hanson, who estimates they are on the hook for $1 billion a year, at least $500 million of which is directly related to post-fire salvage. That’s the amount the government pays to build roads to remote areas destroyed by fires and for herbicides the forest service sprays prior to logging to make clear-cutting easier, among other costs. Meanwhile, the federal government pulls in about $150 million annually from selling the timber in national forests, about one fourth of which comes from post-fire logging. “It’s a bad deal financially for taxpayers, but it’s a great deal for the mills,” says economist Ernie Niemi, who has studied the impact of forest management since the 1970s. “It’s very hard to justify any salvage logging. It’s like they’re bandits.”
P.S. Below are some images of what Sierra Pacific Industries’ own private lands look like in the area around Paradise, California.