Wisconsin Indians to Cut Timber Off Reservation for First Time
MILWAUKEE (AP) _ An Indian tribe whose spearfishing has attracted protests plans to exercise a new treaty right: cutting timber for free in public forests that are used by the state’s $8 billion-a-year paper industry.
The Mole Lake Chippewa band was authorized to begin cutting wood Tuesday in the Northern Highland-American Legion State Forest north of Minocqua.
Ralph Hewett, a state Department of Natural Resources forester in Boulder Junction, said four loggers from the Mole Lake band ″cut a couple of trees for the TV cameras″ Tuesday.
″But they really couldn’t get started because they were waiting for some shearing equipment,″ he said.
They plan to sell the timber to existing mills, but eventually want to start their own mills on the reservation.
Hewett said the band was given permission to cut trees on five tracts of land totaling 898 acres. The estimated value of the wood is $166,000, he said.
The Mole Lake is one of the state’s six Chippewa bands that retain the right to cut timber, hunt and use spears to catch fish off-reservation in northern Wisconsin under 19th century federal treaties. They retained those rights while giving up most of the land.
Since a federal court upheld those rights in 1983, the bands have only exercised the right to spear fish out of season and have encountered sometimes violent protests by fishermen who fear game fish will be depleted.
So far, the Mole Lake band is the only one seeking to cut timber.
The wood selected for cutting amounts to about half of what the state planned to offer for sale to non-Indian loggers this spring in state-owned forests, DNR Chief Forester Charlie Higgs said.
In past years, the state has sold tracts in its forests to the highest bidding logging companies each spring. Those sales amounted to about $2 million over the last five years.
″They (Indians) don’t pay anything for it. The judge has ruled that they have the right to harvest this timber at no cost,″ Higgs said.
Jim Landru, treasurer for the Mole Lake and coordinator of the tribe’s timber-cutting activities, said his band plans to sell the wood it cuts to off-reservation mills. In the future, the band will build its own mills, he said.
″This is something to get our feet wet and see how the process goes,″ Landru said. ″There were more timber tracts offered, but we don’t have the resource for more now.″
He said the enterprise would help generate jobs on reservations where unemployment commonly exceeds 50 percent.
The state enacted an administrative rule under which the timber was offered first to the Chippewa before non-Indians were allowed to bid, Higgs said. But in a lawsuit pending in federal court in Madison, the Chippewa bands seek unlimited access to timber in state- and county-owned forests.
Landru said two Indian-owned logging businesses on the reservation will handle cutting and selling of the timber this spring. He said the tribe would probably get $35,000 and the logging companies might make from $160,000 to $400,000 profit.
Higgs and Hewett said non-Indian loggers are concerned about the Chippewa logging and are worried about the future effects of increased tribal logging on the state’s forest products industry, which employs about 77,000 people.
″We’ve heard some expression from them already and expect we’ll hear more in the future. They are concerned about what will be left for them,″ Higgs said.
Thomas Schmidt, president of the Wisconsin Paper Council, said Tuesday the 33 state pulp and paper companies in his trade association were watching the situation.
″We have monitored it very closely but we have taken no position on it,″ he said.
Schmidt said his group estimates about 2 1/4 -percent of the wood consumed by Wisconsin’s paper and pulp companies comes from state forests each year and Chippewa logging could cut into that amount.
Because Chippewa spearfishers have encountered demonstrations staged by anti-treaty groups - Stop Treaty Abuse-Wisconsin and Protect Americans’ Rights and Resources - the Mole Lake members expect some resistance to their new endeavor, Landru said.
″I would anticipate some problems. The people here in northern Wisconsin are basically good. But there is that group with Dean Crist (STA) and PARR that seem to cause problems,″ he said.
Crist, a leader of STA’s anti-spearfishing protests, said Monday his group has warned about the economic effects of tribal logging and would consider staging some sort of protest.
Higgs said non-Indian loggers are concerned about their livelihood, but he believed the Chippewa timber-cutting would be ″a peaceful endeavor. We don’t have any indication of demonstrations at this point.″