American Forests

Spring 2012

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Menominee Forest Keepers

By Christopher and Barbara Johnson 

A satellite image shows the green rectangle of the Menominee Indian Reservation. (Photo credit: Jeff Schmaltz, Goddard Space Station)

Photographs shot by satellites high above the earth show something very distinctive in the Upper Midwest — a clearly outlined, deep-green rectangle. They’re images of Menominee Forest, the centerpiece of the 235,000-acre Menominee Reservation in northeastern Wisconsin and one of the most historically significant working forests in the world. NASA astronauts have also reported seeing the forest from their perches in the space shuttle.

For more than 150 years, the Menominee have pioneered forestry practices that have preserved an ecosystem with numerous species and varied habitats. The result is a forest that is not only economically profitable, but also ecologically healthy.

The Menominee practice a sustained-yield approach to forestry; that is, they manage the forest to ensure that trees are harvested in amounts that will ensure a steady supply of timber far into the future. The Menominee approach is unique, blending modern forestry science with traditional beliefs embedded deep in their culture. “To us, sustained yield means managing the forest for a long time,” says Marshall Pecore, forest manager for Menominee Tribal Enterprises, the corporation that operates the tribe’s many businesses.

The Menominee people’s emphasis on sustainability evolved from their cultural relationship with their land. They began to harvest timber in the mid 1800s, when, according to the tribe’s oral tradition, a chief counseled them to “start harvesting the trees with the rising sun and work toward the setting sun, but to take only the mature trees, the sick trees and the trees that have fallen. When you reach the end of the reservation, turn and cut from the setting sun to the rising sun and the trees will last forever.”

Over the years, the Menominee also have taken a continuous forest inventory, dividing the forest into plots of a fifth of an acre each to measure changes. “All the trees are numbered,” Pecore explains. “We take diameters and heights. In the last inventory, there were 58,000 trees.” Measuring the trees every 10 to 15 years has aided the foresters in maintaining diversity, quality and quantity.

The Menominee have harvested timber from their forest since the 1850s, but also have protected stands of old-growth white pine. (Photo credit: Christopher & Barbara Johnson)

The Menominee view themselves as the forest’s stewards, never taking more resources than are produced within natural cycles so that the forest’s biodiversity can be sustained. They also believe that rewards can’t be measured in financial terms alone, but in environmental, cultural and spiritual values. As a result, the forest managers allow some trees to reach full maturity before being harvested, while permitting others to age indefinitely to protect thriving stands of oldgrowth white pine and sugar maple. Using this principle, the Menominee have harvested a half billion board feet of lumber since the mid 1800s — yet, today, they have more standing timber than 150 years ago.

Throughout history, the Menominee have had to battle the federal government to keep control of their forest. Soon after they fought and won the right to their own reservation in 1854, the Menominee purchased a small sawmill to cut and process lumber. “Most people think that it must have been unfathomable to the traditional Menominees to cut the trees,” Pecore explains, “but they saw that they could do something to survive. They switched over to logging easily because they had been managing the forest all along.”

During the late 1800s and early 1900s, the Menominee had to battle the policies of various governmental agencies to manage the forests their way and to achieve greater self-sufficiency. In 1905, according to Pecore, “There was a big blowdown of hardwoods, of sugar maples. The Menominee wanted to build a new sawmill and cut the salvage logs.” They faced resistance in Congress, but Wisconsin Senator “Fighting Bob” LaFollette helped enact a 1908 law that allowed them to build the mill.

From the 1950s into the 1970s, the Menominee people faced further threats when the federal government terminated the reservation as a way to promote assimilation of the tribe into the mainstream culture. The reservation became a county, and to raise funds for infrastructure, the tribe was forced to sell parts of their ancestral lands to developers. During this period, the Menominee felt that they were losing their culture and vigorously protested the policy. In 1973, Congress ended the disastrous experiment with the passage of the Menominee Restoration Act, which restored Menominee lands to reservation status.

Since the restoration of the reservation, the Menominee have continued to apply their approach to sustainability. Pecore explains, “You’ve got to have these different ecological types meshing and working together. We maintain stands of hemlock, which is not desirable in the marketplace, but is an important part of the ecology. If we keep a lot of diversity — species diversity, vegetation diversity — then we’ll have a healthy ecological forest.”

Approximately 30 species of trees now populate the forest, including white pines, hemlocks, Canadian yews, sugar maples, aspens, oaks and hickories. Some white pine stands are more than two centuries old, and the hemlocks are even older. The forest is equally rich in wildlife, such as bears, otters and cormorants. More than 300 miles of streams teem with trout.

For their approach to forestry, the Menominee have received numerous awards, including a Presidential Award from the Council on Sustainable Development and a Smart Wood Certification Award from the Rainforest Alliance. In 1995, the United Nations recognized the Menominee and other indigenous groups for balancing land use with sustainable practices to preserve forests for future generations.

Today, Menominee Forest has incredible stands of old-growth trees. In the northern part of the forest, no trails exist, so one has to wade through ferns and other undergrowth to reach ancient white pines at least 15 feet in circumference and soaring 200 feet into the sky. Thanks to the Menominee nation’s wisdom and foresight, one can walk into the past and stand in awe of the majesty of those trees.

Christopher and Barbara Johnson write from Evanston, Illinois.

April 27th, 2012|Tags: |7 Comments


  1. Maria Boyd June 28, 2013 at 2:50 pm - Reply

    I will be citing this website for my research. I am an enrolled Menominee tribal member an have been writing on my tribe and the sustainability of wild rice on the Menominee reservation. I appreciate this magazine article due to the simple fact that my acquired knowledge throughout my upbringing is almost spot on to the information presented in this magazine. Although not all Menominee approve of such publications, I appreciate the generous words you have used regarding our Indigenous knowledge and the sustainability of our forest!!


    Maria Boyd

  2. ns bike eccentric January 13, 2014 at 5:23 am - Reply

    Wow that’s a really serious topic. Why those trees are so important?

  3. Candis Pritchell June 22, 2014 at 11:32 pm - Reply

    Thanks for this, I found it very informative!

  4. Emily October 23, 2014 at 12:07 pm - Reply

    Great article, it’s unusual to find this level of specificity in articles like this! Thanks.

  5. jerry may January 9, 2015 at 1:04 pm - Reply

    I would like to see more detailed information about the diversity. Also your methods of maintaining problem species. Butternut comes to mind. Have you found any resistance to canker?
    Can the bitternut hickory be selected for improved forest traits? I know nothing about oil extraction from nuts, but would it be possible get a usable oil from bitternut.
    I am tempted to suggest hardy pecans, BUT I do not. It would be in your best interests to avoid all introductions from outside. Ha .That’s what you are doing.
    I have heard of the size of some of your J.cinerea Must be awesome I hope you can save the gene pool
    Best wishes
    Jerry May
    Member of Northern Nut Growers Association

  6. Stix El Ra May 29, 2015 at 4:46 am - Reply

    This article is an excellent introduction to the Menonin Tribe. A tribe that manage to hold there cultural values and maintain there ancestral land for over 100 yrs. There ability at being creative and open to growth kept this tribe competitive and innovative. Having the ability to be responsive and agile are great traits that demonstrate unity and trust amongst the people of the Menominee.

  7. Anah D. November 14, 2016 at 1:58 pm - Reply

    Good info! I’ll be citing this website for my project at school if that’s okay. Thank you!

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