The Red Lake Band of Ojibwe is gearing up to reforest 50,000 acres of tribal land.
Red Lake was once a sea of red and white pine forest stretching across the reservation. But tribal officials say the federal government mismanaged the forest starting in the early 1900s. The pine trees were cut down and never successfully replanted.
Red Lake sued the federal government and won a $53 million settlement in 2001. The tribe is using that money to grow its own pine seedlings.
At the two-year-old Red Lake Forest Development Center, a greenhouse holds the nursery's first big crop of pine trees — more than a 250,000 seedlings that will be planted next year.
At the other end of the complex, workers use machines to plant pine seeds.
"These are red pine seeds," said greenhouse manager Gloria Whitefeather-Spears, who oversees the high tech operation. "And the needles will pick up the seed, and then as the tray comes through here it will drop the seed right into the container.
The facility will eventually produce a million pine trees a year, Whitefeather-Spears said. The goal is to reforest a thousand acres annually for the next 50 years. The tribe is very selective about where the seeds come from.
"We have tribal contractors who go out there and pick the cones of different species that we need here," Whitefeather-Spears said. "The trees grew here, and so what we want to do is put back the trees that were growing on these lands and only these lands."
In the lawsuit filed by Red Lake, tribal officials say the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs allowed too much clear cutting and they sold timber cheaply to big loggers and timber barons. The tribe says it lost nearly $400 million in timber revenue over the past 80 years.
When the big pines were cut, the character of the forest changed, said Al Pemberton, director of the tribe's natural resources department. Thick stands of aspen grew in their place. Aspen has historically had less commercial value than pine.
"We'd like to get a lot of it back to the way it was before," Pemberton said. "It's never going to be like that ever again, but if we could get close it would be nice.
Pine forests tend to support other plants that are culturally important to the Ojibwe. When the big pines disappeared, it meant fewer materials for making baskets, and some plants used as healing medicines became scarce. Fewer pine trees also meant fewer blueberries.
"There was a lot of jack pine," Pemberton said. "That's where you'll find a lot of blueberries."
Pemberton said the BIA didn't replace the jack pine because it wasn't as lucrative a cash crop, and so blueberries were no longer as plentiful.
"That's why they were sued," Pemberton said. "Because they weren't taking care of the resources like they were supposed to."
The aspen trees that took over the pine forests are now the number one timber crop for Red Lake. Aspen brings in hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in revenue. Jeff Fossen, tribe director of forestry, said more valuable pine species will replace much of the aspen.
Nationwide, the timber industry is currently struggling. Reestablishing the pine forest might someday mean more timber related jobs on the reservation, Fossen said. Even a few years ago, there were up to 30 tribal logging contractors employing more than 100 band members on the reservation. Now, logging contractors number half of that.
"Jobs are very scarce up here, and we're doing what we can to provide opportunities for tribal members. I think it's vitally important," Fossen said. "Not so much for fiber production and revenue, as it is culturally significant to the people of Red Lake."
The first crop of pine seedlings will go into the ground next spring. Tribal officials expect to hire dozens more employees as the planting gets underway.