For the first time, the Superior National Forest has a full-time tribal liaison.
Juan Martinez coordinates communication between the national forest and the three Ojibwe bands in northeastern Minnesota — the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa, the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, and the Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa.
The bands occupied the nearly 4 million acres that now make up the Superior National Forest long before the federal government acquired it, and they maintain rights to hunt, fish, gather and practice their spiritual traditions on the land under an 1854 treaty signed with the federal government.
"This was all their traditional homeland before the Forest Service acquired it,” Martinez said. “So it's important that we do our due diligence and, and maintain and stay on top of that consultation and coordination."
Martinez started his new role in January, but he didn’t move to Minnesota until July. He’s from Taos Pueblo in New Mexico, and has Tewa and Comanche heritage.
The federal government is legally required to consult with tribal governments about projects that impact them. Martinez calls that consultation the “Big C.”
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"But the important part is the little ‘c,’ the coordination part, where it's their staff and our staff, looking at projects together, and deciding what's best for the landscape."
One of the projects Martinez is working on is the proposed expansion of the Lutsen Mountains Ski Area onto 495 acres of adjacent Forest Service land.
Lutsen says new ski runs, chairlifts, and other additions are needed to compete against big ski resorts out west. The Grand Portage Band has argued the project compromises its treaty rights.
“We owe it to the tribes to pay more attention to their voice,” said Ellen Bogardus-Szymaniak, district ranger of the Tofte Ranger District on the Superior National Forest.
“We have a lot of big things going on here,” she said, citing the Lutsen proposal, as well as proposed mining projects like the Twin Metals underground copper-nickel mine located on Forest Service land outside Ely, just south of the Boundary Waters. “And we need to have the bands involved.”
In the past, the job of tribal liaison was never a dedicated position on the Superior. It was always tacked on to the duties of another position. Other nearby forests, including the Chippewa National Forest, already had a full-time tribal liaison.
Both Bogardus-Szymaniak and Martinez said there's been a push from the federal government over the past year to better engage with tribes.
“It's a partnership,” Martinez said. “It's not us, and it's not them, it's a together type thing.”