BEMIDJI, Minn. (AP) — The Red Lake Reservation was once a sea of red and white pines. But tribal officials say the federal government mismanaged the forest starting in the early 1900s. The pines were never successfully replanted, and thick stands of less valuable aspen took their place.
Now the Red Lake Nation is preparing to reforest 50,000 acres of its land in northwestern Minnesota.
The Ojibwe band won a $53 million settlement from the federal government in 2001. Minnesota Public Radio reported Thursday that the tribe is using that money to grow its own pine seedlings. More than 250,000 seedlings will be planted next year, starting in the spring. The tribe’s goal is to reforest about 1,000 acres annually for the next 50 years.
At the 2-year-old Red Lake Forest Development Center, a greenhouse holds the nursery’s first big crop of pine seedlings. The facility will eventually produce a million pine trees a year, greenhouse manager Gloria Whitefeather-Spears said. The tribe is very selective about where the seeds come from.
“We have tribal contractors who go out there and pick the cones of different species that we need here,” Whitefeather-Spears said. “The trees grew here, and so what we want to do is put back the trees that were growing on these lands.”
The tribe’s lawsuit said the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs allowed too much clear-cutting and sold the timber too cheaply to big loggers and timber barons. The tribe said it lost nearly $400 million in timber revenue over 80 years. And when the big pines were cut, the character of the forest changed, said Al Pemberton, director of the tribe’s natural resources department.
“We’d like to get a lot of it back to the way it was before,” Pemberton said. “It’s never going to be like that ever again, but if we could get close it would be nice.
Pine forests tend to support other plants that are culturally important to the Ojibwe. When the big pines disappeared, it meant fewer materials for making baskets, and some plants used as healing medicines became scarce. Fewer pine trees also meant fewer blueberries.
“There was a lot of jack pine,” Pemberton said. “That’s where you’ll find a lot of blueberries.”
Aspens are now the top timber crop for Red Lake. While they bring in hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in revenue, Jeff Fossen, the tribe’s director of forestry, said more valuable pines will replace much of the aspen.
The timber industry is struggling nationwide. Re-establishing the pine forest might someday mean more timber-related jobs on the reservation, Fossen said. Even a few years ago, up to 30 tribal logging contractors employed more than 100 band members. Now, logging contractors number half of that. Tribal officials expect to hire dozens of employees as the planting gets under way next spring.
“Jobs are very scarce up here, and we’re doing what we can to provide opportunities for tribal members. I think it’s vitally important,” Fossen said.
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