Menominee Forest Stewardship

As the largest single tract of virgin timberland in Wisconsin, the 218,552 heavily forested acres of Menominee tribal land are bound to stand out.

They stood out in the first half of this century, when the Menominee Nation built their own sawmill rather than relying on a non-Native middleman, because they weren’t getting fair value from off-reservation interests for the raw logs their forest provided.

At mid-century, the Menominee forest stood out again, this time as the source of Menominee prosperity.

However, the Menominee Termination Act of 1953 took away the federally recognized status of the tribe. The idea behind the act and others like it was to abolish Indian reservations and move the Indians to cities where the government felt productive vocations would await them. Outside trustees took control of tribal assets, and by the late 1960s, a large section of the forest was being sold off, the sawmill was seldom in use, $10 million in savings had become more than $20 million in debt, and despair for the future was widespread on the reservation.

Yet at the century’s end, the situation has been reversed. Having glimpsed a future without the forest, the Menominee Nation stepped far back from the brink of extinction, beginning with the long campaign to restore itself to federally recognized status, which was granted in 1973.

Today the Menominee forest stands out again – this time for its environmentally sustainable management. The forest has been certified by the Rainforest Alliance’s Smart Wood program and has been honored by the President’s Council for Sustainable Development. Thousands of visitors flock to the reservation every year to look at a working forest that honors wildlife and biodiversity, while providing timber and jobs for the local economy.

The sawmill now operates at near capacity, employing some 150 people on top of the 110 who are in forest operations. And with the forest’s recovery has come the tribe’s own. A College of the Menominee Nation has been established, including a sustainable forestry institute. A fledgling private sector of forestry-relevant businesses and training programs is in a vigorous incubation phase.

The difference is this: the tribe now controls the forest through a board elected from the tribal membership and set apart from the tribal council. Forest uses are governed by an uncompromising priority on what’s best for the forest – rather than short-term profit-taking.

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