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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Menominee Indians Harvest Sustainable Forests

Air Date: Week of

Host Steve Curwood travels to the forests of Northern Wisconsin for a look at a highly successful timber business. The Menominee Indians in the area took to logging back in the 1850's out of economic necessity. Since then, they have harvested two billion board feet from the Menominee Forest . . . yet the area contains more timber now than it did when logging started. Careful, sustainable treatment of the trees — and harvesting based on biological rather than market demands — has left the area the only preserved old-growth tract in the entire region.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

(Drum beats, chanting)

CURWOOD: Imagine land belonging to your ancestors for 1,000 - 2,000 - even 5,000 years. That's the legacy of the Menominee Indians of northeastern Wisconsin.

PECORE: You see a farmer that's, he's the third generation, he's very protective of his land. Just multiply that by a few hundred generations and people are going to be very protective.

CURWOOD: Marshall Pecore is the guardian of this rich legacy: more than a quarter million acres of forest. In the 1850s the Menominee were able to keep only a portion of their ancestral lands from white settlers. Left with a remote, forested section, they turned from hunting, fishing, and growing wild rice to logging.

PECORE: Menominee means wild rice men, so wherever the shell, bays and lakes were is where they primarily settled. When they were going to be pushed west to the prairie state, and they lobbied to maintain this part of their acreage here, they said well let us settle here in this timber land; we'll stay on our timber lands there. And the old chiefs looked around and said if we're going to survive, more or less, we've got to make our livelihood off of this timber. We no longer can be subsistence living.

CURWOOD: Since then, more than 2 billion board feet of lumber have come out of the Menominee forest, and yet today there is more timber standing than when the logging began. And they've preserved the ecology of the old growth forest.

SIMEONE: Through selective harvest, they've been able to maintain natural biodiversity of their forest.

CURWOOD: Forest management specialist Robert Simeone first visited the Menominee 20 years ago as a forestry student.

SIMEONE: It's an unbelievable example; if you drive through the forest you believe you're driving or walking through old growth timber. The trees are huge. And they have the best grade timber in the state. And it's basically only because of a strong stewardship ethic that they've practiced from the beginning. You know, they really were way ahead of everyone when it came to good forest management practices.

(Footfalls and birdsong)

CURWOOD: Once all of Wisconsin was blanketed with woods like these. But they were cleared to build the cities of St. Louis and Chicago and Milwaukee. The Menominee Forest is the only major old growth forest left in the region. Its managers wait until the trees are in prime condition to remove them, instead of when the price is highest, even if it takes 200 years. I caught up with Menominee Forest Manager Marshall Pecore in a stand of white pine.

PECORE: When a tree starts to decline is when we cut the tree, rather than, on a lot of lands when the tree or when the markets are there, the tree is cut. On Menominee, we cut it when it's biologically ready and the growth is starting to taper off. That's a key difference.

CURWOOD: Now let's talk, let's talk a bit about the health of, the age and the health of this tree and how soon you'd like to cut it.

PECORE: Well, what we do, the health of it right now is on a declining condition. If you look up the bowl of most of these, well, like the one over here, you see the little knobs about, oh, maybe 18 feet up. That's a sign of red ring rot. Red ring rot, it's a disease that has a lot of effect, and it also decreases the value of the timber. Inside, the boards, if you cut the tree down and you're going to cut boards out of it, they'll all have a reddish appearance and there wouldn't be any quality.

CURWOOD: So in essence, you cull the bad and leave the good.

PECORE: Right. We mark the worst and leave the best.

(Creaking door, truck engine)

CURWOOD: Marshall Pecore oversees the Menominee Forest in a truck with a shovel, a chainsaw, and a can of insect repellent to ward off swarms of hungry mosquitoes. He's part Menominee and the woods seem to be in his blood. Both his father and grandfather worked as loggers and in the mill here. There are 25 different species of timber in this forest and 14 different forest habitats. The Menominee are working hard to preserve each one of them. They're able to manage their huge reserves thanks to a database called the Continuous Forest Inventory. With it, they track each of the 109 separate sections of the forest. Each habitat requires its own prescription for renewal and regeneration. We drive and bounce, bumping along in the truck on the narrowest of roads. Barely 6 feet wide, the brush and understory crowd our way. Past basswood, ash, pine, oak, sugar maples. After all I've heard about how differently these woods are managed, I'm now surprised where Marshall stops the truck. We're in a wide area that's been shorn of all but a few white pines. We get out and walk around the stumps. At first glance it's an ugly gash on the landscape. It looks like a clear-cut. But Marshall tells me it's a special type called a shelter wood.

PECORE: We call this a white pine shelter wood system. But it is a unique system on Menominee. We do a few things a little bit different. Our scare frying or how we turn the dirt over is kind of unique.

CURWOOD: Here the Menominee are trying to simulate a natural process. Fires used to sweep through the forest, clearing the old stands and preparing the way for white pine seedlings. Today, wildfires are suppressed, so Marshall Pecore tries to mimic those fires in other ways, that include clear-cuts like these. They allow sunlight to blanket a wide swath of the forest floor. His workers then turn over the soil, making it receptive to new growth, and occasionally apply herbicides to keep out competitors. I look around, and on closer examination I notice that a small miracle is happening underfoot. This is the forest maternity ward, and you do have to watch where you step. The handful of 170-year-old pines that remain are giving birth to a new generation of seedlings.

PECORE: There's probably four or five thousand on the ground right now already. There they are, that's the white pine right there.

CURWOOD: Well golly, this guy's, he's less than an inch tall, he's a half an inch tall.

PECORE: Last year was our bumper crop of seedfall. We had anywhere from 20 to 40 pounds of seed per acre falling. That means that in a pound there's about 26,000 seeds per pound. And on a shelter wood, the idea is, in order to get so many seedlings on the ground you have to use the natural seed fall; otherwise you could never afford to replant an area like this with that amount of seed. Once you start looking at the ground it's kind of staring at you; it's just covered with them. Look at them all. All right there, all the way down.

CURWOOD: This shelter wood will be tended for decades on its way to becoming a mature forest. It could be 200 years before these tiny seedlings are trees ready to be cut. But Marshall Pecore likes to say that forestry's a long-term gain, and the tribe is in it for the duration. But it's not just when trees are taken; it's how they're taken out that also distinguishes this type of forest management.

(Chainsaw cutting a tree)

CURWOOD: Taking down a tree causes some damage to the surrounding forest no matter how careful you are. But the Menominee are more finicky than just about anyone else about removing trees from their forests. Many loggers drag the timber out of the woods, ripping up the ground. But the Menominee crews cut the trees into short logs which can be carried out; and they don't log at all during the 3 wettest months of the year, when trees and soil are most vulnerable to damage. Forester Robert Simeone says the Menominees set the logging standards for the industry.

SIMEONE: They try to maintain or minimize impacts on, in their harvest. They are leaders in establishing harvesting regulations. They do things that nobody else does. They have designated skid trails, for example. They have very restricted machinery that can operate in their forest. They carefully monitor the effects that the harvesting has on the long-term productivity.

CURWOOD: It costs more to use these kinds of sustainable management practices, and the Menominee don't make as high a profit as they could if they weren't so careful. Because of stiff competition in the forest products industry, the Menominee have had to assume the added cost of sustainable forestry without passing them along to consumers. Now, environmental auditing firms, like Scientific Certification Systems, offer labeling programs so that Menominee lumber can be marketed at a premium to consumers who prefer to buy from sustainably managed forests. And Robert Simeone says the entire Upper Great Lakes Region benefits.

SIMEONE: You know, just having that forest there today is a tremendous encouragement for everyone. Because if that forest didn't exist, we wouldn't know the potential of these forests up here. We wouldn't even realize how productive they could be.

CURWOOD: The Menominee want to establish a center for sustained yield development, to share with others their secrets of forest management. Marshall Pecore likes to say that the Menominee are true stewards of the land because they didn't inherit their resources from their ancestors - they borrowed them from their children. To Marshall Pecore it's simple: just follow in the footsteps of the tribal leaders who have gone before.

(Drum beats and chanting)

PECORE: So the wisdom and the vision of those old guys was just, to me, just astounding and astronomical to have that type of vision. And that's what kind of set the course where we are today, with those old guys of 150, 160 years ago.


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