Commitment to the environment is key at Menominee
By David Capriccioso -- Today correspondent
NEOPIT, Wis. - The Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin prides itself on a long-standing commitment to the environment, and its forestry and saw mill operation is celebrating 100 years managing a 230,000-acre forest in northeastern Wisconsin.
Menominee Tribal Enterprises, officially founded in 1908, is a leader in helping improve the quality of life while living within the carrying capacity of the ecosystem, commonly referred to as sustainable forest management.
The enterprise has continued to grow and now counts 300 employees across the area with more than half of its staff working in the saw mill during peak periods.
Prior to establishing a saw mill and forestry under the MTE name, the tribe possessed a long history of sustainable forest management. The tribe's experience with forest management dates back to at least 1808, when horses and handsaws were used to manage the forest, said MTE president and CEO Adrian Miller.
Miller is finishing his fourth decade at MTE. He first became involved with MTE in the late 1960s while sweeping floors at the mill after attending college. In addition to performing various tasks at the saw mill, he spent 10 years harvesting and has countless experiences within the Menominee forest.
He has not seen a large change in the original mission of MTE, which was to enjoy, cherish and help sustain resources provided by the forest.
''The way we harvest is still the same,'' he said. ''The thing that has changed - modernization and computers - but we still cut the same amount of lumber.''
The forest may even be better off than it was a century ago. Estimates from 1854 show 1.3 billion board-feet of timber contained within the forest, and MTE counts a growth of 400 million board-feet today to 1.7 billion board-feet of timber. A variety of tree species are represented in the forest including beech, black cherry, maple, pine, white ash and numerous others.
''The Menominee forest is one of the best-managed forests in the world,'' Miller said. ''Cuts are done on a 15-year cycle and every year we go to a different area to do the cuts.''
The tribe earned national recognition for its work in 1996 when it received the President's Award for Sustainable Development. The award was granted by former President Bill Clinton. Five other groups have honored MTE in the past 14 years.
Randy Williams, area forestry leader for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, served as a forest liaison for 10 years and has crossed paths with the tribe on numerous occasions in the past two decades.
''The tribe has demonstrated long-term commitment,'' Williams said. ''The DNR has enjoyed a really good relationship with MTE because the DNR is doing similar things.''
''We share mutual interests,'' he added.
These interests include preserving the forest, by controlling pests from invasive species that can wreak havoc on forests. They also involve combating forest fires and dealing with natural phenomena, such as the tornado that struck the forest in 2007 and leveled more than 3,000 acres.
Another growing concern is rising winter temperatures in recent years, which may be due to the heavily debated topic of global climate change. Miller points to warmer, shorter winters in the area as evidence of the climate shift.
Cooler temperatures typically control insect populations. Miller said that the forest will continue to see greater insect populations as temperatures remain warmer.
Despite its solid relationship with the state DNR, the tribe encountered a setback with the federal government which, in 1961, stripped the tribe of its reservation status. That move left the state in charge of the forest.
Ironically, this proved to be a key moment in helping to build a solid relationship between MTE and the state.
The tribe received reinstatement as a reservation in 1972, and the BIA took over as monitor of the MTE forestry operation. Later, the tribe initiated an agreement that would allow cooperation between federal, state and tribal governments.
In 1996, the tribe negotiated another agreement with the federal government that would allow all tribes in the state to benefit from the relationship it had forged earlier with the state DNR. This effectively set up a system in which state forestry experts collaborate with tribes across the state to manage forests.
For example, Williams currently oversees forests with the Menominee tribe and the Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohican Indians in Bowler.
Respect for the forest is a key that has helped the tribe as it developed these initiatives and is a major reason the tribe continues its work in sustainable forest management.
''[Our] people nurtured a deep relationship with their surroundings,'' Miller said. ''We lived in harmony with nature and learned from parents and grandparents who passed down their love of the land.''
MTE's future plans involve the development of a biomass electric energy generation facility.
For more information, visit www.mtewood.com.