MENOMINEE COUNTY, Wis. — Amid the sprawling farmlands of northeast Wisconsin, the Menominee forest feels like an elixir, and a marvel. Its trees press in, towering and close, softening the air, a dense emerald wilderness that’s home to wolves, bears, otters, warblers and hawks, and that shows little hint of human hands.
Yet over the last 160 years, much of this forest has been chopped down and regrown nearly three times. The Menominee Tribe of Wisconsin, its stewards, have pulled nearly two hundred million cubic feet of timber from this land since 1854 — white pine cut into museum displays and hard maple made into basketball courts for the Olympics.
Yet the forest has more trees on the same acreage than it did a century and a half ago — with some trees over 200 years old.
The Menominee accomplished this by putting the well-being of the forest and their people ahead of profits and doing the exact opposite of commercial foresters. They chop down trees that are sick and dying or harvest those that have naturally fallen, leaving high-quality trees to grow and reproduce. It is regarded by some as the nation’s first sustainable forest.
But today the Menominee find themselves in a difficult spot. They don’t have enough workers to cut down enough trees. Few of the tribe’s younger members are interested in the painstaking, difficult handcutting that is the hallmark of the tribe’s sustainability practices.
The tribe has fallen short of its targeted annual harvest by more than half, threatening the viability of its historic sawmill, an important source of income. But more than that, the labor shortage threatens the health of a forest that is central to the tribe’s way of life.
“In a way, we’re fighting modernization, because nobody wants to pick up a manual handsaw,” said John Awonohopay, lumber operations manager for Menominee Tribal Enterprises, the company that oversees the forest. “Think of it as a garden. Right now we’ve spent 150 years plucking all the weeds, and have it pristine. But we can’t harvest the pristine fast enough.”
Left alone, the forest will grow dense, stunting the growth of some trees and inviting invasive diseases and pests, which are already an increasing menace because of climate change.
An hour’s drive northwest of Green Bay, the Menominee forest is so lush it pops in images from space. At 235,000 acres, it’s home to about 4,300 tribal members and roughly two dozen species of trees, hardwoods and softwoods like red oak, pine, maple, aspen and hemlock that fill 90 percent of the land.
In many ways, the reservation is an island. It borders farmland long ago shorn of trees. Its people overwhelmingly vote blue in a sea of red. During statewide wolf hunts, wolves on the reservation go untouched: The Menominee respect them as kin, and also hunt only for food.
The Menominee people once occupied some 10 million acres stretching from the eastern half of what is now Wisconsin into Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, but in the 19th century were forced to cede the vast majority of it. Pressured by the federal government to relocate to northern Minnesota, the tribe negotiated to stay put, on a fraction of its ancestral land around the Wolf River.
According to Michael Skenadore, president of Menominee Tribal Enterprises, the tribe began logging shortly after the formation of its reservation, when it recognized the revenue potential of white pine. The government wanted the tribe to clear the trees and to farm, according to Michael Dockry, assistant professor at the University of Minnesota’s forest resources department.
But the Menominee people had no intention of destroying their forest.
Instead, they saw it as a collective resource that, if carefully harvested, could allow them to maintain their cultural connection to the land while providing for plants, animals and the tribe for generations to come. A quotation attributed to the tribe’s legendary Chief Oshkosh set their course. If the Menominee took only very old, sick and fallen trees, he said, “the trees will last forever.”
The result was a sustainable forest that is influential today. Foresters routinely come from around the world to study the Menominee land, which has been recognized by the United Nations and certified by the Forest Steward Council, the gold standard for responsible forestry, among other awards.
Tribal forests are generally healthier, better managed and more biodiverse, making them more resilient to climate change, Dr. Dockry said. And many consider the acreage under the control of the Menominee to be the healthiest managed forest in the United States — even though tribal forests get one-third of the funding per acre that federal forests receive, according to Cody Desautel, president of the Intertribal Timber Council.
“In many ways,” Dr. Dockry said, “they are leading the feds in how to manage forests.”
One chilly day last autumn, Ron Waukau, the forest manager for Menominee Tribal Enterprises, and McKaylee Duquain, who tracks forest inventory, toured the forest by Jeep. Roughly a quarter of the forest, some 60,000 acres, is unharvested — old burial grounds and ancestral seasonal villages, buffers around raptor nests and wolf dens, swamplands and areas near waterways, according to Ms. Duquain.
The rest is managed exactingly. Using centuries of knowledge and helped by computer imaging and drones, Menominee foresters determine their harvesting schedule by forest health and the age and readiness of trees, rather than by market demand.
“It’s a 180 flip on other industries, where profitability is their number one,” said Mr. Awonohopay. “To us the forest is number one. We want a profit by all means. But taking care of the forest and our people come first.”
Ms. Duquain examined a few soaring white ash trees that had been sprayed orange for cutting. The trees grew straight and tall, and would have otherwise been left in place, except that deadly emerald ash borer beetles had been found in the forest. “It’s going to be a pre-emptive removal,” she said.
Ms. Duquain and Mr. Waukau made their way to a small thicket of young pines gathered around a massive one that reached high into the sky. Decades earlier, the stand had been clear-cut. Though controversial within the tribe, Mr. Waukau said, the method benefits trees that need open spaces and sprout from roots, along with birds that thrive on forest edges. In this case, the parent tree was left in place and generated seeds that grew into trees that now were some 20 feet high. “A success,” Mr. Waukau said.
This careful management of the Menominee forest has helped increase the value of its lumber. Because the Menominee let their trees grow older, their logs are generally longer and wider than industry averages. Their Forest Steward Council certification drives demand, especially from Europe, according to Patrick McBride, who buys and sells Menominee wood for the MacDonald & Owen lumber company — which, he says, pays on average a 5 percent premium for Menominee wood. “It’s a unicorn,” Mr. McBride said of the forest. “Their poor quality trees are as good or better than most commercial trees around.”
The practice of putting forest health ahead of profits, and never cutting more than the forest grows, has led to some head scratching in the lumber market.
“From a business standpoint, it’s very hard for people to understand that,” said Nels Huse, a marketing specialist with Menominee Tribal Enterprises.
Acts of nature also play a role. Timber sold to the Field Museum in Chicago came from a 181-year-old tree that had been damaged by lightning, according to Mr. Huse. Last June, ferocious winds blew down over 12 million board feet, the unit measurement of lumber, mostly pine, which threw off the harvesting schedule.
Over a century ago, forestry and logging employed an estimated two-thirds of working Menominee men. The main sawmill, built in 1908, was for decades one of the few sources of income on the reservation, and its workers devised a kind of sign language to communicate over the din.
But of late, labor shortfalls, Covid shutdowns, various inefficiencies and aging equipment have prevented the Menominee from meeting their production goals. Mr. McBride said there’s much more demand for their lumber than can be delivered. Annually, the Menominee aim to fell between 22 million and 25 million board feet, but in recent years have managed to cut only between nine million and 12 million board feet, according to Mr. Skenadore.
A major reason is high turnover and lack of interest in logging among younger people. Logging used to be passed down through generations, but it’s hard, dangerous work, often done in frigid or broiling conditions, and carries hefty upfront costs: Loggers supply their own equipment. They are paid by what they cut, meaning rookies earn less, Mr. Awonohopay said.
Younger tribe members generally prefer other employment — with the tribal government, the casino, the school district — and there is stiff competition for the small labor pool, Mr. Skenadore said. Since the 1990s, according to Mr. Awonohopay, the tribe’s logging work force shrank from 33 crews to about a dozen today. Another blow came in 2019, when five loggers for the tribe were found guilty of stealing timber. Without enough workers and with aging machinery, the Menominee sawmill has not been profitable for six years, Mr. Skenadore said, even as demand for wood nationwide has soared.
All of this has translated into concerns about the fate of the mill and the health of the forest. “The forest is growing and changing,” Ms. Duquain said. “We just can’t keep up with it.”
To increase production, the Menominee have offered free chain saw classes and equipment, sought to pay trainees more, promoted work force development at the local college, 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 Bureau of Indian Affairs, proceeds from the sawmill cover loggers and close to 100 mill workers, and keeping it afloat is desperately important to the Menominee.
“What would the community be without the sawmill?” Mr. Awonohopay asked. “A lot of us put our lives into it.”
Left alone, the trees of their forest will grow old and eventually die, a natural cycle. But the Menominee believe that if they’re not actively managing their resource, and keeping it as healthy as it can be, they’re letting down generations to come, even failing a forest that has given them so much.
“Everything we’re doing is managing for the future,” Mr. Waukau said. “We’re just a blip.”