|September 25, 2003
Volume 34 Number 2
|A publication for the faculty, staff, administrators, and friends of California State University, Chico|
Harvesting the History of a Local Timber Company
Questions about forestry and the environment
When Professor Mike Gillis, History, describes the timber company he profiles in his forthcoming book, The Soper-Wheeler Company: A Century of Growing Trees, readers might be surprised at his use of laudatory phrases, such as "acts with environmental concern" or "cares about the forest." But, according to Gillis, Soper-Wheeler practices "sustained-yield cutting," harvesting only as many trees as their Northern California acres can grow. This practice protects forestland and maintains profits, perhaps the reason they're the oldest privately owned timber company in California.
In 1904, having witnessed centuries-old results of "cut and run" logging that left forests with eroded waterways and devastated land and habitats, the Soper family and the Wheeler family, owners of large sawmills in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, respectively, jointly purchased 14,000 acres of inexpensive land in Northern California. Their goal was to implement sustained-yield cutting -- but the Depression destroyed both sawmill businesses. However, since they had already purchased the land, at the end of the Depression, they sent Bill Holmes, a graduate of Yale University Forestry School, to company headquarters in Strawberry Valley, between the Yuba and Feather Rivers. "[The company] had learned its lesson," Gillis said, from watching so many forests die from decimation and companies crash from debt. Operating on cash and farming trees "the right way," Soper-Wheeler today owns 70,000 acres in the Sierra Nevada and 30,000 acres in the coastal region.
When Gillis started the research in 2000 -- after Soper-Wheeler contacted the College of Humanities and Fine Arts in search of an author -- he had little knowledge of the company's unique moral and business standards. Most timber companies, Gillis said, used to practice "cut and run forestry -- buy the land, cut down all the trees, get them to a mill, and then move on." But when Gillis began going through business correspondence and minutes of board meetings that dated back to 1906, documents that "no one had touched in 50 years," he was surprised -- not only by the near absence of blemishes on Soper-Wheeler's extensive record, but also by the freedom executives granted him to write the book. "They gave me all these documents and said, 'Just be fair. That's all we want you to do.' There was no pressure on me to write [the book] a certain way," Gillis said.
To Gillis, the book is a corporate history, but also "a way to educate the reader about California forest history." It is due out in November from Documentary Media.
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