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Founded in 1904, Soper-Wheeler Company was the first California timber company to practice sustainable forestry. From the beginning, the company has managed its lands conservatively, providing for healthy forests, diverse habitat, long-term careers, sustainable forest products, and economic benefit to our local communities.
The story of Soper-Wheeler begins in 1859 when James Soper moved from rural New York and founded the Soper Lumber Company in Chicago with his brother Albert. Having grown up working on their father’s farm, the brothers were no strangers to hard work. By 1890, the second generation was working for the company, and the firm had established timber markets as far east as Massachusetts and as far west as Colorado. During this time, the family purchased an interest in the Menominee Bay Shore Lumber Company on Lake Michigan, and by 1905, they had concentrated efforts at their newly-constructed sawmill in Soperton, Wisconsin, about 70 miles northwest of Green Bay.
A few years after the Sopers started in Chicago, Nelson Platt “N.P.” Wheeler, then age 23, was charged with turning the family’s struggling rural western Pennsylvania sawmill operations around. His only advice from the angry outgoing manager was “Dew as you’ve a mind to”. He did so, ultimately building one of the largest and most successful lumber operations in Pennsylvania history. Wheeler pioneered conservative forest practices, wildlife conservation, habitat restoration, and employee benefits: all things unheard of in that era. Along the way, Wheeler served in the Pennsylvania state legislature and in the US House of Representatives.
In 1902, both Soper and Wheeler families separately purchased land in northern California. Through mutual contacts, the two families met, and in 1904 James P. Soper Jr. and Nelson P. Wheeler formed the Soper-Wheeler Company, pooling the lands into one company.
The core property was a 14,000 acre tract on the west slope of the Sierra at Strawberry Valley near La Porte, straddling the divide between the Feather River and Yuba River watersheds. The combination of soils and rainfall make it one of the premier west coast sites for growing timber, and the company still owns much of this original property today.
Strawberry Valley’s history started in the 1850s as a mining town, and during those gold rush years, many other communities were established in the vicinity.
Nearby La Porte was the largest, and was the site of the nation’s first organized downhill ski racing on 12-foot “snowshoes” in the late 1800s. Transportation was by mainly on horseback and by foot. As with many Sierra gold rush towns, mining and related activities took their toll on the surrounding forest, and much of the area was cut over.
When Soper-Wheeler formed, logging was generally done by railroad and steam engines, though the main means of transport in the area was still horse and wagon. With no immediate plans to begin an operation in Strawberry Valley, the company decided that their land purchases would be long-term investments to be treated with care.
Worried that heavy tax burdens would undermine this long-term approach, William E. Wheeler wrote
“One of the best methods of conserving the forests is to change methods of taxation so as to make it an inducement to hold timber rather than cut it.”
This concept took 60 more years to come to fruition when California passed the Yield Tax Law in 1975 with key support from Soper-Wheeler’s Chief Forester and later President, Bill Holmes.
When truck logging replaced steam-powered railroads during World War II, the new technology allowed for higher efficiency and an increased production area that was previously inaccessible. Over the next several decades, the company invested in trucking and log handling equipment, eventually growing to operations in ten counties.
Under the leadership of former president James P. Soper, Jr., the company’s pioneering program of sustained yield and conservative operations were set in motion.
Soper-Wheeler continues to run on the principle established by James P. Soper Jr. during that time:
“When maximum profit goals appear to be in conflict with established conservation principals and sustained yield, then in all probability the profit projection needs re-examination.”
In the 1950’s, forward-thinking Soper-Wheeler foresters Don Cosens and Bill Atkinson started experimenting with clearing brush and planting trees in an area decimated by a forest fire. Previously, natural seeding was the only technique used for regeneration.
At the time it was generally thought that the process of cone collection, seed viability testing, germination, establishment, and planting were not worth the effort. Cosens and Atkinson proved otherwise. The experiments were successful, and each year they refined techniques and planted more trees than the previous year. Soper-Wheeler became known as a leader among the forestry community in California.
At around the same time, James P. Soper III arrived at the company and set to work purchasing cut-over timberland to rehabilitate into productive sustainable forests in the future.
Thousands of acres were purchased in this forward-thinking program, and the Company diversified into ranching, vineyards, and coastal redwood lands as a result. In several instances, James P. Soper III halted logging on the new properties so they could recover and provide a sustainable timber source in the future.
Over the next two decades, Soper-Wheeler continued to plant trees and experiment with new regeneration techniques. In May, 1973, California’s first lady, Nancy Reagan, traveled to Strawberry Valley and planted a ceremonial pine seedling, acknowledging Soper-Wheeler as the first private landowner in California to plant one million trees.
The rapid development of new technologies in the next decades have made for better regeneration, more efficient harvesting, and science-based land management.
Advances in silviculture have yielded trees with low mortality rates which grow faster and are resistant to disease, making for healthy, vigorous forests. The latest work on species diversity, integrated pest management, and best management practices guide our foresters in their work.
On the landing, hydraulic power, on-board computers, and electronic “fly-by-wire” systems have replaced the block and tackle and mechanical linkages. Quieter, low-emission, fuel-efficient equipment has replaced the clattering smoky machines of the past.
Likewise, the information age has given us the tools to distill volumes of raw data into usable information. GPS, databases, and Geographic Information Systems have replaced index cards, binders, light tables, and map rooms, while keeping decades of critical institutional knowledge intact and immediately accessible.
We use these tools and this wealth of information to make informed, scientific, and sustainable land management decisions for resilient forest ecosystems, knowing that every tree we harvest is put to good use, and that every tree we plant belongs to our children’s children.