Menominee County: Showcasing Sustainable Forestry

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From space, the Menominee Forest appears on satellite images as a deep green rectangle in the upper Midwest. From the ground, the 230,000-acre forest stands out as a practical example of sustainable forestry, representative of Great Lake states’ boreal forests as they were before European settlement. 

The forest and how it is managed was recently on display for natural resource professionals and elected officials who want to learn more about conservation projects and practices. Each summer, neighboring county land and water conservation departments (LWCD) partner to host boots-on-the-ground tours in their regions. These guided area association tours provide an opportunity to share knowledge and gain a better understanding of how conservation works on local landscapes. 

On their turn to host, Menominee County, which shares nearly identical borders with the Menominee Reservation, chose to highlight the forest management techniques used by Menominee Tribal Enterprises (MTE), the business arm of the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin. 

“Our goal for the tour was to showcase something different, something that people weren’t already familiar with,” said Jeremy Johnson, director of the Menominee County Land Conservation/Forestry/Zoning Department. “Many people don’t understand the importance of the collaborative work between the county, the Menominee Tribe and MTE.”

Over the years, Johnson has worked closely with Ron Waukau, senior forest manager for MTE, on efforts ranging from oak wilt treatment to invasive species prevention. “We’re the only county that is 100% within a tribal reservation,” explained Johnson. “So, for us, it’s not even a question – if we want to positively impact the land, we must work with and learn from the Menominee Forest professionals.” 

Scott Frank, Shawano County Conservationist, examines artifacts at the Menominee Logging Museum.

Johnson and Waukau organized a tour that provided perspective on how balancing traditional knowledge and Western science leads to a healthy and productive forest. The tour began at the Menominee Logging Museum, the largest and most complete logging museum in the United States, where participants learned about Wisconsin's extensive logging history. Additionally, they had the opportunity to view numerous historic artifacts, such as tools and equipment used for logging. 

Waukau then took the group into the forest, first stopping at a forest health treatment site to learn how MTE combats oak wilt, an invasive fungal disease that rapidly kills trees by clogging the cells that move water within the tree. Infected trees wilt and quickly lose their leaves, dropping a halo around their trunks of brown or mottled green leaves. There is no cure for oak wilt in a forest setting, and infected trees must be pruned or completely removed – stumps included – to prevent the disease from spreading. However, this can cause significant disruption to the forest floor and leave the area with very limited tree coverage.  

MTE uses drones to monitor the oak stands, which not only helps save time but also helps save trees. “If we see signs of oak wilt, we go out to examine the area and apply our rapid response treatment,” explained Waukau. The treatment, which has over a 90% success rate, consists of girdling the tree and injecting it with a special herbicide mix that was developed by the MTE Forest Health Department and is now shared with other partners and organizations. “If it’s going to help landowners make stronger decisions on how to help the land, then we’re open to sharing our methods,” said Waukau. 

The group also visited a successful shelterwood stand to learn more about management techniques, such as diversification, regeneration, and silviculture, or the art and science of controlling the growth and health of the forests. Waukau notes that fire was a powerful tool understood and used by their ancestors to ensure forest health. “Fire was continually used for hunting and gathering, and we owe our ancestors for shaping the forest we have today,” credited Waukau. Through the use of controlled fire, MTE is able to open up the forest, allowing more sunlight for white pines and offering ecological benefits for the wildlife. 

The shelterwood harvesting method removes a forest stand gradually over time to ensure the health and longevity of the forest. Waukau explained that this land ethic was embraced by Menominee Chief Oshkosh in the 19th century, and continues to guide their current management plan. Chief Oshkosh advised, "Start with the rising sun and work toward the setting sun, but 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.”  

Last October, Chief Oshkosh was posthumously inducted into the Wisconsin Forestry Hall of Fame by the Wisconsin Chapter of the Society of American Foresters. Waukau accepted the award on behalf of the Menominee Tribe, and noted that without Chief Oshkosh’s leadership, the Menominee Tribe would have been removed from the land they so carefully manage. Today, the Menominee Forest stands as a testament to the implementation of science, technology and business practices within a cultural context. 

Ken Dolata, Oconto County Conservationist and coordinator for the Lake Michigan Area Association, noted that area association tours provide a valuable educational opportunity for conservation professionals and elected officials. “It was interesting to see how MTE is leading the nation with their ideas,” said Dolata. “Getting together and seeing these practices on the ground is the best way for us to ask questions and share information to increase our awareness about conservation practices.” 

“We are all resource managers, and we want to share our knowledge if it’s going to help the forest,” said Waukau. “We know what we have, and it’s a beautiful forest. I feel honored to help manage it.”

To learn more about MTE forestry practices, visit mtewood.com. Elected officials and natural resources professionals interested in upcoming area association tours should contact their county land and water conservation department. 

This story was written for and appeared in the Wisconsin Counties Assocation Magazine. 

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