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Labor and climate concerns trouble Native American timber enterprise

One indigenous group's main source of income is their logging industry, and they are in a difficult spot.
Labor and climate concerns trouble Native American timber enterprise
Posted at 3:40 PM, Oct 10, 2023

The logging and timber industry has been facing issues involving climate change, shortage of workers and decreased demand.

One indigenous group's main source of income is their logging industry, and they are now in the difficult spot of trying to find balance between sustainable harvesting and climate change.

Among the farmlands of northern Wisconsin, there's a growth of dense woods that's been cared for and looked after for more than 160 years by the Menominee people, who are the stewards of the land.

"The social spiritual connection to the forest is very important," said Ron Waukau, the manager of Menominee Forest Management. "The most important and biggest thing that we have on the reservation is our ability to have that forest still intact and be able to use it."

Within the forest just north of Green Bay is a sawmill, one of the main assets of Menominee Tribal Enterprises, typically producing between 22 million and 25 million board feet a year and shipping lumber worldwide.

"So, the forest is renowned worldwide for the sustainable practices that we do within this forest," Waukau said.

"The one product that we could sell at a really good and reasonable price is our white pine," said Mike Skenadore, the Menominee Tribal Enterprise President. "We don't go out in the woods and say species 'X' is most profitable and go out and take as much as species X. We don't do that. We must cut what's in our plan. That's an economic challenge for us as well."

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But their work is about more than just sustaining their economy today, it's about sustaining their forest for the future.

The Menominee Tribe has pulled nearly 200 million cubic feet of timber from this land since 1854, yet the forest has more trees on the same acreage than it did a century and a half ago.

They achieve this by using the techniques of their ancestors, chopping down sick and dying trees by hand and harvesting those that have naturally fallen.

That leaves the high-quality trees to grow and reproduce before those are cut, which is a labor-intensive process to keep their forest healthy.

"We're managing on a schedule based off what the forest is telling us and what it needs, not what the sawmill needs," Waukau said.

However, the tribe finds itself in a difficult spot with a shortfall of workers,  and COVID shutdowns and aging equipment have prevented the Menominee from meeting their production goals.

"One of the things I consistently heard is that we don't have enough workers who want to carry a chainsaw all day and run through ten tanks of gas every single day, making logs," Skenadore said. "So, you know that's a challenge."

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In recent years, the tribe has cut only about half its targeted amount, with about $15 million dollars in sales last year, down from its pre-pandemic range and overall goal of over $20 million, according to Skenadore.

That's threatening the viability of its historic sawmill, and the health of a forest central to the Menominee way of life. If they can't keep up with cutting, the overall health of their forest can be damaged.

"We're looking at the diversity of the forest and our ability to keep a strong healthy forest by managing it," Waukau said. "It is a concern on all aspects of forest management personnel and staff to have enough people in order to do what we need to do."

The Menominee have offered free chainsaw classes and equipment, increased pay, and are looking at automation.

A recent $5 million federal grant for new sawmill machinery is expected to increase efficiency and help retain jobs.

While forest management is funded by the Federal Bureau of Indian Affairs, proceeds from the sawmill cover loggers and close to 100 mill workers.

"We're starting to have conversations with AI and what that can do for us," Skenadore said. "There's going to be a certain amount of upscaling that has to go on there to continue to work for us."

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