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University declares intent to return forestry center land to Fond du Lac

First public documentation on Board of Regents docket this week

The University of Minnesota made public this week plans to give the 3,400-acre Cloquet Forestry Center to the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa.

The transfer of land was included in Thursday's University of Minnesota Board of Regents finance committee meeting docket, a meeting held in Minneapolis after this issue of the Pine Knot News went to press.

It appears to be an informational notice only - with no action required by board members - but the docket notes the "real estate transaction is a repatriation of land to its original caretakers."

Rick Horton, executive vice president of Minnesota Forest Industries, said he first heard of the discussions a year ago and sent a letter to U of M President Joan Gabel and College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences dean Brian Buhr. He heard back in March.

"They assured us that as a land-grant university, there would be public discussion before any decision," Horton said. "Then we heard nothing for 11 months and found it on the board docket this week. Reading that, it's pretty apparent it's a done deal."

Not quite. Although efforts to reach University and Band leadership before presstime yielded no direct responses, University spokesperson Jake Ricker told the Pine Knot News Wednesday there is more work needed before any formal review or action, and a number of public steps would have to be taken for the land to be returned to Fond du Lac.

Owned by the University of Minnesota, the Cloquet Forestry Center has been the primary research and education forest for the university since 1909. It is the oldest experimental forest under continuous operation by a university in the United States.

Within its boundaries is an arboretum that has existed since the 1920s, containing tree species from around the country and the world, providing a long look at how other species may survive here. There are also experimental forests, including Camp 8, a 44-acre stand of old-growth red pine trees that are 200-300 years old.

Every year university students studying forestry come to the center for field work, and local elementary and high school students visit the forestry center for educational field trips and competitions.

Recreationally, residents of Cloquet, Fond du Lac and surrounding areas also use the center's trails for walking, running, biking, cross country skiing and snowshoeing. The Scouts hold an outdoor winter skills event there every year.

But the forestry center also lies in the heart of the Fond du Lac Reservation, on land that was originally set aside by the federal government for the tribe as part of the La Pointe Treaty of 1889. Although the land was purchased by a local lumber company and transferred to the University of Minnesota, essentially the transaction was legal only because Congress and the state legislature had passed laws allowing non-Native entities to purchase reservation lands, working around treaties to procure lands. (See Page 19.)

FDL Reservation Business Committee Chairperson Kevin Dupuis spoke with the Minneapolis Star Tribune in April 2021, sharing his thoughts on the forestry center land. At the time, Dupuis told the newspaper the Band wanted the forestry center land back, to use as they desire. He said they want to use it for "natural reasons," and not for research that was not historically shared or explained to the tribe.

It wouldn't be the first land returned to a tribal nation in Minnesota. Two and a half acres - Wisconsin Point and part of St. Francis Cemetery in Superior - were signed over to the Fond du Lac Band in August 2022. It was land where Ojibwe gravesites were dug up to make room for an iron ore dock that was never built. Elsewhere, nearly 18,000 acres of land within the Chippewa National Forest were returned to the Leech Lake Band last year - land that was illegally sold by the federal government in the 1940s and 1950s. More than 28,000 acres of land sold under the Allotment Act was restored to the Bois Forte reservation in June 2022, through a purchase agreement with the Conservation Fund and the Indian Land Capital Company, which serves tribal nations and people in the recovery of their homelands.

The difference between those larger transactions and the Cloquet Forestry Center proposal lies in the history of the research conducted over more than a century, which also kept the land from being further divided and developed.

Alan Ek, an outspoken professor emeritus of the Department of Forest Resources at the University of Minnesota, opposes the transfer, noting the potential to destroy a century of research on forest and wildlife protection, management and conservation.

"If we lose the CFC, we all lose," he wrote in a press release for Friends of the Cloquet Forestry Center on Monday. "The list of those losing begins with the U of MN's forestry education, research and outreach program and stakeholders including students, conservation organizations, forest landowners, the forest based industry (a major manufacturing industry) and citizens - from all walks of life who value Minnesota's forests."

Horton is worried about losing both a research facility and training center for future field foresters at a time of accelerating climate change and high job turnover from baby boomer retirements in the industry.

"There's a dire need for field foresters to actually manage forests," Horton said. "Additionally we're looking at forest management to address climate change. There is a huge need to research carbon sequestration. Because of its long tenure, that facility is uniquely positioned for that kind of work."

No conditions

University of Minnesota president Joan Gabel has made discussions with the 11 tribal nations of Minnesota part of her mission since early in her tenure, which began in 2019. She appointed former FDL Chairperson Karen Diver as her first "senior advisor to the president for Native American affairs" in May 2021 and Diver serves as a member of the president's senior leadership team.

In response to questions from the Pine Knot News this week, Ricker said the University intends "to return care and control of this land to the Fond du Lac and that's not conditional on any ongoing relationship with the University but, with that said, we continue to have productive discussions about the future."

"It's premature to speculate what that relationship will look like going forward, but we've appreciated the Fond du Lac's openness to potential agreements that would allow University research, education and outreach to continue on the land, in some form, in close collaboration with the Band," he continued.

Others are less confident it's the right move.

"It sounds like the idea is to give the land to the Fond du Lac Band at no cost and walk away and find another place to conduct research," Horton said of information included in the Board of Regents docket.

Horton said he's not against the tribe being part of the forestry center, but he would like to see the University pursue a middle ground that would at least ensure continued research and co-management of the facilities perhaps.

"This is about the facility - its history and the role it can play as we go forward," he said.

Private talks

Discussions about the future of the forestry center went from "not focused on a specific outcome" last year, to an agenda item suddenly this week.

The University FAQ states that discussions began after the Fond du Lac Band asked to have regular and ongoing dialogue with the university, expressing they didn't feel they had a "meaningful" relationship with the forestry center.

Last spring, Ricker wrote that the University and the Band were discussing information about research at the forestry center, how these efforts may align with the research needs of the Band, program development and community engagement, history of the property, cultural uses, and, in addition and "along with all of those items, the potential return of some lands to the Band."

To date, there have been no public meetings and there is no formal committee doing the work, Ricker explained on Wednesday. He said ongoing "conversations" have involved a variety of University leaders and staff.

"There have not been any open forums on this topic to this point but there are a number of public steps that would have to occur for the land to be returned to Fond du Lac, including formal review and action by the University's Board of Regents during future public meetings," he added.

A newspaper interview with University of Minnesota president Joan Gabel or the University's Board of Regents wasn't available before presstime. The Pine Knot News also reached out to local legislators and the Fond du Lac Band leadership with questions, with no response before presstime. Look for more on this in next week's paper, following the Board of Regents meeting.

Find out more:

-To watch the recording of the Feb. 9, 2023 Board of Regents meeting online, click the following links: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xo-fws4kT4g.

-To learn more about the Cloquet Forestry Center through the story of Camp 8 - a unique and very old stand of trees - go online to https://bit.ly/40vsHbw for a multimedia story and photos.

-For a look at how the land left Native American hands, read this story: