Many Have Stakes in Indian Timber Rights to be Decided by Judge
MADISON, Wis. (AP) _ A dispute over whether 19th century treaty rights allow Chippewa Indians special access to timber in northern Wisconsin - the heart of the state’s $8 billion forest products industy - will be decided in a federal court trial to begin Monday.
Federal courts have upheld the treaty, signed when the Indians ceded the northern third of Wisconsin to the United States, but U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb must decide how the land should be managed.
The six Chippewa bands argue they shouldn’t have to pay a proposed user fee to harvest timber on off-reservation land and that they should have first accesss to all the wood they can cut in county- and state-managed forests.
County officials contend the forests might be destroyed if the fee is waived for the Indians, since the money is used to replant trees and care for the land.
″We’re just saying that the Indians should abide by the same regulations as everyone else,″ said Loren Sloan of the Wisconsin Counties Forest Association.
David Steigler, attorney for the Bad River band of Chippewa, said the Indians believe the land is theirs and they shouldn’t have to pay to harvest timber there.
″It doesn’t make sense to make the Indians pay for something that is theirs,″ Steigler said.
About 1.8 million acres of forest involved in the case are managed by counties, which make about $3 million annually from timber sales. Management of about 375,000 acres of state land also is being disputed.
Timber sales from state land generated nearly $2 million over the past five years, the state reported. The counties and states are represented in the trial independently.
Assistant Attorney General Lisa Levin said the state doesn’t plan to charge the Indians a user fee, but seeks a ruling on whether the Indians could hire non-Indians to work for their harvest operations.
″The Indians want to expand the scope of the treaty rights to non- Indians,″ she said.
Timber companies have a stake in the trial’s outcome because officials fear the forests might become neglected and quality wood wouldn’t be available as a result of resource management disputes.
″The counties are doing an outstanding job of managing those forests,″ said John Noblet of Louisiana Pacific Corp., which has two timber operations in northern Wisconsin that employ about 425 people.
″Any drastic change from the way the forests are managed could be upsetting to the economy,″ he said. ″It would have serious, serious consequences if the forests aren’t managed properly.″
However, Noblet said he doesn’t believe any timber or paper companies would leave Wisconsin immediately if Ms. Crabb rules in favor of the Indians and comanagement of the forests.
″With the type of capital investments these companies have in northern Wisconsin, it’s going to be a long, hard, drawn-out fight before they would pick up and leave,″ Noblet said.
Forest products manufacturers employ about 77,000 people and produce about $8 billion worth of products annually, the state Department of Development reported.
Unemployment rates on most of the Chippewa reservations exceed 50 percent and Indians are looking to logging as a way to boost their economies, said David Steigler, attorney for the Bad River band.
Eugene Taylor, tribal chairman of the St. Croix band, declined to discuss how Ms. Crabb’s ruling could affect the reservations’ economies, saying only, ″It’s very important.″
The Indians decided not to claim their rights immediately on the 1.4 million acres of federal land in the ceded territory.
Ms. Crabb has ruled in favor of the Indians in other resource management trials since the Indians began exercising their treaty rights again in the mid-1980s.
Some non-Indians fear another victory for the Chippewa might put some of the estimated 650 loggers in northern Wisconsin out of business.
″These little towns have hundreds of loggers who depend on the timber to make a living,″ said Lincoln County Supervisor Carl Renoos. ″If you give one person an economic advantage, you put the other person out of business.″