Chainsaw massacre? Not in Wisconsin

A tribe of Indians has shown logging can be profitable without inflicting losses on the natural environment. Caspar Henderson reports
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The Independent Online
Just across the Great Smokey Falls, on the Wolf River in northern Wisconsin, lie 250,000 acres of lush and exceptionally beautiful forest consisting of oak, beech, maple, white pine, hemlock and 20 other species. Although this, the Menominee Indian reservation, may sound exotic, anyone who has gone to the Homebase DIY store in Britain may have bought wood from the banks of the Wolf River (although UK distribution is now handled by Milland Fine Timber in Liphook, Hampshire).

For this forest is a garden rather than a wilderness. The Menominees market timber from their forest around the world. And they do it sustainably. Foresters come from as far as Brazil, Sweden and Malaysia to see the first, and probably the only, commercial timberland in the United States to be certified as a sustainably managed forest.

Menominee is an island of the old boreal (great northern) forest in a sea of rolling farmland - Wisconsin is known as America's Dairyland. The edges of the forest are so sharply defined that satellites use them to focus their lenses.

Most of the forest has been logged twice over since the 1860s. Yet it now boasts more high-quality, mature growing timber than when logging began. "It's probably the most successful example of a sustainable resource there is," says Robert Kennedy Junior, an environmental lawyer and son of the presidential candidate who was assassinated.

Two elements have been central to Menominee success: a tribal ethic that emphasises community, continuity and respect for nature, and some of the most advanced scientific forestry practices in the world. "The tribe is part of the forest ecosystem and its survival depends on managing and protecting that ecosystem," says Marshall Pecore, head of forestry operations for Menominee Tribal Enterprises, a corporation jointly owned by the 4,000 or so Menominees.

But this simple ideal requires great skill and patience to make it into reality. Pecore and his team conduct a continuous forest inventory on more than 800 plots distributed throughout the forest in order to assess the long-term effects of growth, disease and cutting on timber volume and quality. Timber harvesting is conducted at a rate no faster than it grows. But this is only part of the story. Modern forestry consists of plantations containing trees of a single species and uniform age. While these can be highly productive in the short term, they support few other plants and animals and are highly susceptible to disease. The Menominee prefer to encourage species that thrive best on certain soils, working with nature rather than imposing a pattern upon it.

As a result there is great diversity in tree species and ages across the reservation. And yet the Menominee reservation yields twice the volume of quality sawn logs as the Nicolet National Forest, an area twice the size, which was clear cut at the end of the last century.

"The Menominee are 50 years ahead of everyone else," says Bob Simeone, a forester with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. "When we're planting, they're thinning. When we're thinning, they're worried about regeneration. In forestry practice no one holds a candle to these people."

In most forestry practice, timber stands are usually harvested and regenerated to maintain existing species composition. But this approach does not account for inappropriate cutting, fire, windthrow or grazing in the past, which can mean that land that is potentially highly productive appears not to be so.

Pecore and his team use habitat classification and geographic information systems to enhance productivity further. The mix on a given site varies according to soil moisture and nutrient levels, and because different tree species thrive on different sites it is possible to see whether those currently growing on a site are best suited to it.

Drawing together highly detailed pictures of forest habitat types and current timber stands - comprising 15,000 "micro-sites" - the Menominee foresters have found that about a quarter of the forest has low-value species such as aspen, white birch, red maple and scrub oak growing on sites suitable for high-value species such as white pine or sugar maple. They are gradually replanting these.

By the 1850s, European settlers and their diseases had almost exterminated the "wild rice people" - for that is what the name "Menominee" means - leaving the survivors with less than 3 per cent of their original territory.

Hunger for land to farm and timber to build America's cities meant it took just a few decades to clear the great Wisconsin forests, and virtually the whole state had been cleared by the turn of the century. This left the Menominee on an island on some of the richest timber east of the Mississippi. As early as 1854, Chief Oshkosh had counselled his people to generate wealth from the woods without destroying them. But it took nearly 40 years for the tribe to win the right to exploit the timber themselves, and even longer to get permission to have their own sawmill.

In 1890, landmark legislation granted them an "annual allowable cut" of 20 million board feet of timber a year. Soon after, the Menominee were allowed to build their own sawmill. They proved to be master foresters, and a trust fund for timber revenue made the tribe among the richest in the US.

But the relative affluence of the tribe was nearly its undoing. In 1960, a majority voted for termination, ending the tribe's protected status and enabling the division of the fund and the creation of private lots out of reservation land. The forest and the mill were placed in a private corporation. A cowboy era of asset-stripping followed. "This," says Pecore, "was burning your house down to stay warm."

In 1973, after a long and sometimes bitter campaign, the Menominee voted to become the first Native American nation ever to reverse termination, bringing all land back into common ownership. Menominee Tribal Enterprises had to buy back part of the tribe's own land and is still paying off the debts. The tribe learnt at least one lesson about exploitation, and a Menominee casino now profits greatly from the folly of tourists.

But running the forest for profit has not been easy. Timber prices are set by economic trends that are virtually blind to good management, although good management costs money. And the Menominee, who will sell only whatever species and volumes their forest can sustainably yield, are relatively inflexible in the face of changing demands. Until three years ago, the mill was running at a loss. But uniquely, Menominee timber has been endorsed by both Smartwood and Greencross, America's leading certifiers of sustainably produced timber. This has helped to boost sales in recent years to an increasing number of discriminating customers. Next month, the Menominee will receive a global endorsement from the Forestry Stewardship Council, founded by WWF together with some of the leading timber retailers who pledge to take all their timber from sustainable sources by the year 2000.

"The operation has shown profits for the past three years," says Larry Wakau, president of Menominee Tribal Enterprises. Last year, the profit was $2.4m on turnover of $12m. The timber harvest remains 20 million board feet as it has been in virtually every year for more than 100 years.

"We are publicly owned, by the tribe which is sovereign," says Wakau. "Now, if we were a greedy corporation that would be another matter. But we are fully aware of market demands. But a higher rate of return is just too short-sighted. You only have to look at the forest to know what we're doing is right."