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Bittersweet ending to planting of 12,000 trees

MARQUETTE, Mich. – Several American Indian tribes helped plant 12,000 trees across northern Michigan in May during the interfaith EarthKeeper Tree Project including members of an Ojibwa tribe who bravely tried to save 45 sacred spirit houses from being destroyed as two huge forest fires broke out just hours after planting the last seedlings.

Thousands of EarthKeeper volunteers from more than 100 churches and temples planted more than 12,000 white spruce and red pine seedlings measuring 12 to 16 inches tall in all 15 Upper Peninsula counties and Minocqua, Wis., said Catholic EarthKeeper Kyra Fillmore of Marquette, the project distribution coordinator, adding the teams hope “the trees grow strong and tall.”

The EarthKeeper team includes 10 faith traditions with more than 150 participating churches/temples (Catholic, Episcopal, Lutheran, Presbyterian, United Methodist Church, Unitarian Universalist, Baha’i, Jewish, Zen Buddist, Quakers), plus the nonprofits Superior Watershed Partnership and Cedar Tree Institute, as well as the Northern Michigan University EarthKeeper Student Team.

Hours after the last of 12,000 trees were planted, a forest fire on the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community reservation jumped the road ravaging a sacred cemetery.

In an ironic twist, two huge forest fires erupted May 20 destroying thousands of trees only hours after the final ones were planted by members of the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community.

Fanned by 40 mile per hour winds with gusts to 60 mph, one inferno in Baraga County rampaged across hundreds of acres of KBIC forest land and into a tribal cemetery used by members of the Zeba Indian Mission United Methodist Church.

Susan J. LaFernier, church member and KBIC vice president, said the fire destroyed 45 sacred spirit houses at the KBIC Pinery Cemetery that has been managed by the Zeba Indian Mission for nearly 200 years.

When the blaze roared across the remote cemetery surrounded by woods LaFernier was raking and preparing to bury her cousin hours after planting the last of the trees.

She and tribal men, who were preparing the grave, jumped into action using anything they could to prevent the fire from reaching the spirit houses; fortunately dozens were saved.

“We are very protective of the cemetery,” said LaFernier, great-great-granddaughter of a Methodist missionary during the 1800s.

Her mother, father, brother and many other family and friends are buried at the cemetery.

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“I tried to put out a small fire there to save the houses and cemetery but was not able; it had already jumped across the road,” said LaFernier, adding the exact number of trees burned is not known, but could be in the tens of thousands.

A larger forest fire about 60 miles east in neighboring Marquette County destroyed 30 buildings including 21 homes. No deaths or serious injuries were reported.

Lafernier said even though 45 spirit houses were burned, the blaze could have been worse. “We had just raked the leaves away for the Memorial Day services.”

Only 10 days before the fire about 200 seedlings were passed out during Mother’s Day church services at three Methodist churches in Baraga County that share the same pastor.

As the churches planted “trees to nurture the earth” they “honored Mother Earth for her nurturing love,” said Rev. John Henry, pastor of the Zeba, L’Anse and Sidnaw Methodist churches.

Returning to the Pinery Cemetery for Memorial Day, Lafernier noticed “the grass was green with a beautiful pink flowering crab tree” surrounded by “pines and oaks that were charred black.”

“God was with us and always is and he is a great God. We thank everyone for their prayers and are grateful that no lives were lost.”

EarthKeeper organizers said the fires demonstrate how important the planting of trees is even in an area known for lush forests. Many can be lost in a single fire. On the other hand, the fires helped spread seeds of the plentiful Jack Pines. The resin-filled cones of the Jack Pine remain dormant until a fire causes them to pop open pouring seeds to the ground and spewing them in the wind.

“Planting trees also helps speed the natural recovery process after a fire,” said Carl Lindquist, Superior Watershed Partnership.

This is the fifth year KBIC members have participated in an EarthKeeper Earth Day environment project. The tree project kicked off on Earth Day with the interfaith blessing and planting of a three-foot white spruce. The seedling planting was delayed to May due to cold weather.

The trees were purchased or donated by the U.P. EarthKeeper team, SWP, Holli Forest Products, The Forestland Group, Plum Creek Timber Company and Meister’s Greenhouses. Other groups and individuals also donated money.

Northern Great Lakes Synod Lutheran Bishop Thomas A. Skrenes said the tree project allows diverse faith communities to find “common ground” and “to hold hands with people who we don’t even agree with” on some theological issues.