The Wolf River flowing through the Menominee Indian Reservation in Wisconsin.

The Wolf River flowing through the Menominee Indian Reservation in Wisconsin. Chris Ford via Flickr

Tree Keepers: Where Sustaining the Forest Is a Tribal Tradition

The Menominee tribe of Wisconsin has sustainably harvested its woods for nearly 170 years, providing a model for foresters worldwide. Amid climate change and other threats to the forest, the tribe continues to follow a traditional code: Let the healthy trees keep growing.

Mike Lohrengel looks up in awe at trees he has known for 30 years. “This is one of the most beautiful places I know. This forest has it all: the most species, the most diversity. Many trees I know individually. Look at this one behind us. It’s got a split way up there. I’ll never forget that tree till I die.”

It is a love affair, for sure. But Lohrengel is no tree-hugger, out to preserve a special, pristine place. He is a timber harvest administrator, overseeing logging in one of the most remarkable working forests in the United States — nearly a quarter-million acres of trees that occupy almost the entire Menominee Indian Reservation in northern Wisconsin.

“The forest looks pristine,” he says, as a flurry of snow falls through the open canopy. “These big maples and basswoods are around 150 years old. But we have been logging here for over a century, and we still have more trees than when we started.” In June, the tribe’s forestry officials began exploring the potential for selling the carbon accumulating in the forest on the U.S.’s growing market for carbon-offset credits.

“We make decisions based on what’s best for the forest,” says the tribe’s forester. “I am humbled to be able to work like that.”

There are probably more than a billion trees today in the Menominee forest, which is an hour’s drive west of Lake Michigan. We were there in late February, the day after the biggest snowstorm of the winter. We were standing near the Menominee’s sawmill in Neopit village, from where trucks move the lumber across America to make everything from basketball courts to domestic furniture and hand-crafted toys. But even close to the mill, big healthy trees with the highest potential price tag get to grow old.

The trick, says Lohrengel, is husbandry for the long term. “We come in every 15 years, take out the weak trees, the sick trees, and the ones that are dying, but leave the healthy stock to grow some more and reproduce,” he says. “We don’t plant anything. This is all natural regeneration, and the way we do it the forest just gets better and better.”

Lohrengel is not a Menominee tribal member. He is the son of a pulp-mill worker who has been devoted to the tribe’s harvesting philosophy since first working on the reservation inventorying the trees in 1990. Most U.S. foresters, he says, are trained to cut the best trees and leave the sick ones behind. The result is a forest with deteriorating genetic stock. But the Menominee are “doing the opposite, and making the forest healthier.”

A member of a Menominee logging crew cuts a mature tree in February.

A member of a Menominee logging crew cuts a mature tree in February. Petr Krejčí

“We make our decisions based on what’s best for the forest,” says Lohrengel’s boss, the Menominee’s veteran head forester Ron Waukau. “Our logging schedules and management are purely for the forest. I am really humbled to be able to work like that. The sawmill knows what it will get and sells accordingly.”

For the Menominee, says head silviculturist Tony Waupochick, it is not just a matter of maintaining the volume of timber. “We are also managing the forest to maintain its diversity and integrity, and to keep it healthy for wildlife.”

The Menominee adopted their enlightened approach soon after the creation of the reservation in 1854. It has worked spectacularly well, says Patrick McBride, sales director of the Pennsylvania-based lumber company MacDonald & Owen, which buys most of the output from the Menominee sawmill. In almost 170 years, the tribe has harvested nearly twice the forest’s former volume of timber, yet it still has 40 percent more standing wood than when they started. “And by leaving the best trees, the old and sick lumber they harvest is now better than the best from most everyone else,” says McBride, who pays a premium price for it.

The 235,000-acre Menominee reservation is 93-percent forested, and visible from space as a dark green block of trees.

Professional U.S. foresters today like to say that America’s shift from blindly clear-cutting trees to managing them more sustainably began in the 1890s, with the founding of the Biltmore Forest School in North Carolina, followed in 1900 by the founding of the Yale Forest School. But the Menominee were decades ahead of them, argues Michael Dockry, who researches American Indian and Indigenous natural resource management at the University of Minnesota. In the mid-19th century, he writes, they already practiced “a new form of forest management that stood in stark contrast to the cut-and-run harvesting occurring through the rest of Wisconsin and the United States.” It was “the first sustained-yield forest management system in the country.”

The 235,000-acre Menominee reservation is today 93-percent forested and famously visible from space as a dark-green block of maple and aspen, birch and hemlock, ash and basswood, red oak and white pine, surrounded by dairy pastures long since cleared of trees by immigrant farmers. Some trees are more than 200 years old and more than 200 feet high. Around a quarter are left unharvested, mostly in swamp areas, at sacred sites, and in important wildlife refuges, says Waukau. Foresters come from across the world to walk the reservation with him and see how the Menominee harvest the rest. “Basically, we are taking tribal knowledge and blending it with today’s ecological science.”

An inspector grades lumber at the Menominee sawmill, with visitors on tour in the background.

An inspector grades lumber at the Menominee sawmill, with visitors on tour in the background. Courtesy of Nels Huse

The Menominee forest was among the first to be certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), after its formation in 1993. That recognition of sustainability was a no-brainer, say FSC insiders. The Menominee’s crews currently cut only around a third as much timber as the forest grows each year — 8 or 9 million board-feet each year, compared to growth of around 24 million acre-feet.

A detailed study by Nicholas Reo of Dartmouth College and Donald Waller of the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2018 found that, after more than a century of logging, the Menominee forest was “more mature, with higher tree volume, higher rates of tree regeneration, more plant diversity and fewer invasive species than nearby nontribal forest lands.” The FSC rates the majority of the forest as of “high conservation value” with large expanses where “naturally occurring species exist in natural patterns.”

The Menominee’s forestry approach was the brainchild of the tribe’s revered 19th-century chief, Oshkosh. After negotiating the 1854 treaty that secured the reservation for his people, he codified how they should harvest its forest. “Start with the rising sun and work towards the setting sun, but take only the mature trees, the sick trees, and the trees that have fallen,” he said. “When your reach the end of the reservation, turn and cut from the setting sun to the rising sun, and the trees will last forever.” His words are inscribed on a plaque at the entrance to the tribe’s forestry offices.

Menominee forestry practices are underpinned by their cultural and spiritual traditions, conveyed by their ancient language.

Logging techniques have changed since Oshkosh’s day. Hand saws and horse-drawn skids have been replaced by chainsaws and heavy dragging equipment. In an hour, a drone can see what it would have taken human eyes many weeks. But Oshkosh’s philosophy persists, says McKaylee Duquain, who runs today’s forest inventory.

Among the mostly older male Menominee foresters, Duquain stands out as young, female and tech-savvy. After studying conservation sciences at the University of Minnesota, she returned to the reservation three years ago to take charge of the logging schedule. “I decide what areas are going to be cut next, figure out how much is in there, whether the trees are mature enough, and so on,” she says.

Each year, her team surveys thousands of acres of the forest, often delving deep into its history, comparing today’s aerial images with maps hand-drawn on acetate sheets by predecessors who paced out the land, compass in hand. But Duquain and her colleagues also put on their boots to identify and mark individual sick or old trees for harvesting, and to ensure that those with a diameter less than 10 inches are spared. Only then do Menominee and other local contractors bring in their chainsaws — mostly in winter when the ground is frozen hard, so removing the logs does not damage the ground.

Joey Awonohopay, director of the tribe's cultural commission. The Menominee use wood from their forest for making baskets, canoes, and other crafts.

Joey Awonohopay, director of the tribe's cultural commission. The Menominee use wood from their forest for making baskets, canoes, and other crafts. Petr Krejčí

Besides this continuous cycle of selective forest thinning, some small areas are clear-cut. This is to help the growth of species such as oak that require plenty of sunlight, says Duquain’s boss, Waukau. Fire is another important tool, he says, burning undergrowth and logging leftovers at the start of the summer to remove material that could fuel major fires later in the season.

The Menominee fire team spends as much time starting fires as stopping them, says Curtis Wayka, who runs the burning program. In quiet times, the team travels the U.S. sharing their expertise. That expertise has a long heritage, says Waukau. “Our ancestors understood and used fire well. We are going back to that.”

Many Menominee forestry practices are underpinned by their cultural and spiritual traditions, often conveyed by their ancient language, which is now being revived in the tribal school. The tribe’s creation story puts its roughly 9,000 members into five clans, each named after animals of the forest: bear, wolf, moose, crane, and eagle, all of which are revered and protected. Don Reiter, the reservation wildlife manager, identified around 25 wolves in the reservation last winter, in five packs. He estimates there could be as many as 250 black bears.

The reservation is estimated to be making a net capture of more than 30,000 tons of carbon dioxide from the air annually.

Many Menominee craft traditions use materials from their forest: black ash for basketry, basswood for wigwams and rope, and birch for canoes. “The ironwood tree is too strong for our mill to utilize, but we have always carved it,” says Joey Awonohopay, director of the Menominee Language and Culture Commission, who identifies as a member of the bear clan. Traditionally, it made warriors’ clubs. The tapping of maple trees for their syrup each spring remains hugely popular, and some people still gather medicinal plants such as bitterroot and ginseng.

But it is lumber sales that dominates the Menominee economy, accounting for around half the reservation’s economic activity. The business is run by Menominee Tribal Enterprises (MTE), a body elected by the tribe to operate commercially but sustainably. Its newly elected president, Michael Skenadore, says he faces some pressing issues to ensure its future viability. The sawmill, which was erected in 1908 and last refitted in the 1980s, needs heavy investment. And it is increasingly difficult to find young people willing to work as loggers in the forest during the long cold winters. Many prefer employment in the reservation’s other major concern: the casino.

But Skenadore has an eye to the future. He has begun investigating the potential to profit from selling carbon credits generated by the forest’s accumulating timber. “Along with a number of tribes from all over the country, we are exploring our options,” he says. According to industry calculators, the reservation could currently be making a net capture of more than 30,000 tons of carbon dioxide from the air each year.

The Menominee Tribal Enterprises sawmill.

The Menominee Tribal Enterprises sawmill. Menominee Tribal Enterprises

Will the forest continue to thrive? However good the management, there are growing environmental threats. Changing climate is bringing more windstorms, says Lohrengel. The most recent blast, in June 2022, consigned 12 million board-feet — more than a year’s typical harvest — to the forest floor in 20 minutes. The foresters were out the following day flying drones to identify the damaged areas, and for the next nine months abandoned their logging schedules to concentrate on salvaging the downed timber.

Invasive pests can be a menace, too. The emerald ash borer, an Asian insect that has spread to 36 states since its arrival in the U.S. in 2002, finally entered the reservation last fall. “We were the last place in Wisconsin to get it,” says Waukau. He fears the worst. “It’s hard to imagine the ash not being in our forest, but it may be inevitable.” Despite such threats, he believes the large, biodiverse, and sustainably managed forest he oversees is more resilient than most. “Maybe in 30 or 40 years we will have lost some species, but I fully expect the forest will be thriving.”

Back in the forest, Lohrengel points to a clutch of tiny maple saplings reaching up to light streaming through the canopy after recent felling. “They look small now,” he says. “But future generations will be marvelling at how big they become.”

Fred Pearce traveled to the Menominee Indian Reservation with the support of the American Hardwood Export Council.