SAULT STE. MARIE, Mich. (WJMN) – The Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians announced Wednesday that it has signed a Tribal Forest Protection Act Proposal to enter into a management partnership with the Hiawatha National Forest.

The proposal includes a $364,000 investment from the United States Department of Agriculture that will support co-stewardship to monitor and manage the health of remnant boreal forest ecosystems in the U.P.

Sault Tribe wildlife biologist Eric Clark is looking forward to having a seat at the table when forestry decisions are made.

“For us to engage with the National Forests in this way allows us to have direct say in how these lands are managed and how that relates to that to that historic treaty right. And, you know, allows us to build better futures to ensure that our members can harvest the species that they depend on into the future,” said Eric Clark.

Through the proposal, the Tribe is aiming to protect remnant boreal forest ecosystems that include 4,735,678 acres and are within the 1836 Ceded Territory and the U.P. It includes significant portions of over 900,000 acres of Forest Systems lands on the Hiawatha National Forest.

“Our ancestors have lived on these lands for thousands of years, so we’re glad to be able to combine generations of traditional local knowledge with forestry management science,” said Sault Tribe Chairman Austin Lowes.

A release from the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians included the following message regarding the importance of maintaining the forest ecosystems:

Boreal remnant ecosystems are a defining feature of the Upper Great Lakes Region. These lowland-conifer-dominated forests include white cedar, eastern hemlock, balsam fir, black and white spruce and hardwoods like birch and red maple. Lowland boreal remnants can experience high concentrations of animals in winter when snows are deep and food and cover for wildlife are limiting, which can make them particularly vulnerable to climate change.

Competing interests for the forests require that they are managed carefully. National Forests provide a wide variety of resources to all Americans. Timber production and outdoor recreation are well-known uses of the forest. But there are many other uses that are uniquely important to local residents. Over half of all Sault Tribe members’ hunting and gathering activity takes place on the Hiawatha and Huron-Manistee National Forests, with members harvesting a variety of species, including big game, small game, waterfowl, furbearers, and medicinal plants and mushrooms.

Lowes said the Tribe hopes the partnership with Hiawatha National Forest will result in a new management model that utilizes western science while engaging Anishinaabe knowledge frameworks developed over centuries. Under the proposal, the Sault Tribe Wildlife department will take a lead role in the planning and monitoring prescribed fires and other forestry management projects that help build the resilience in the U.P.’s remnant boreal forest ecosystems. The USFS will then implement the plans.  

“This approved proposal is really a codification of more than a decade of collaborative work between our tribe’s wildlife program and the Hiawatha National Forest,” said Lowes. “Our goal is to ensure that the forest is not only here for the next generation but the next seven generations.”

US Forestry Service wildlife biologist Paul Thompson says the general public should see business as usual.

“The big change is the opportunity for the tribe to bring their values forward instead of us saying here’s the projects we would like to do and inviting them to the table to consider our priorities. This provides the tribe an opportunity to come to the table first. And for us to work together on their planning,” said Paul Thompson.

This USDA investment brings the total funding the Tribe has received to over 2 million in the last 10 years to support collaborative work to understand remnant boreal forest ecology in the 1836 Treaty Ceded Territory. Other projects have included research and management of species like gray wolf, ruffed grouse, snowshoe hare and marten, as well as understanding how prescribed fire and silviculture can be used to build resilience in these important ecosystems.

“Many of these projects will tackle our most pressing issues, including climate change and the wildfire crisis, while creating job opportunities for tribal members with the benefit of incorporating indigenous knowledge into ecological restoration activities,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack when announcing this most recent investment. “This is just one example of how our renewed commitment to work with tribal nations has multiple benefits, including expanding opportunities for tribal youth to pursue land management careers and integrating indigenous traditional ecological knowledge passed through the generations into ongoing co-stewardship activities.”

Echoing the Secretary’s sentiments, Acting Hiawatha Forest Supervisor, Shannon Rische said, “We are excited to implement the Sault Tribe Tribal Forest Protection Act proposal,” said Acting Hiawatha Forest Supervisor Shannon Rische. “And look forward to continued collaboration in caring for the land and serving people right here in the Upper Peninsula.”

Although the US forestry service has been working with the Sault tribe for over a decade. The tribal forest protection act will make it law.

“It’s not just the tribes coming in and saying we want to see this we want that it’s it’s a partnership. And in that partnership, we’ve learned a great amount of what we do, how it impacts not just us but the tribal members, the community at large. And it makes us think in different ways about how we can manage our forests to best suit many different in diverse communities,” said Brenda Dale with the US Forestry Service.