Details still scarce on forestry center plans
February 17, 2023
More background details - and concerns - are emerging regarding the proposed transfer of the Cloquet Forestry Center to the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, but it appears likely that answers could take months or even longer. News that the University of Minnesota intends to give the 3,400-acre research center and experimental forest to the Band became public two weeks ago, when it appeared as an information-only item on a University of Minnesota Board of Regents meeting docket.
Speaking publicly for the first time on the issue, university president Joan Gabel told finance and operations committee members on Thursday, Feb. 9, that university administration agrees this is "the right time to talk about repatriation of the land," stressing repeatedly that it was a "historic moment" for the university.
The future of the facility, its research - which can take decades where trees are involved - and educational role is still unclear. Gabel seems to be pushing for a no-strings-attached transfer of land to the tribe.
"Nothing is conditional in terms of the transfer or exploration of the transfer of this property," Gabel told committee members.
Fond du Lac Band communications director Rita Karppinen sent the following statement in response to questions from the Pine Knot News:
"The Cloquet Forestry Center land was taken from the Band and return of the land will help to restore the Band's homeland. The details about the university's ongoing role, research management, public access and many other issues are under discussion and will need to be addressed."
Gabel said informal discussions of the proposed transfer began shortly after she was introduced in 2019 to Karen Diver, who is now the university's senior advisor to the president for Native American affairs and was Fond du Lac tribal chairwoman from 2007 to 2015. Discussions at a regents retreat in March 2020 at the forestry center added momentum to the idea, Gabel said.
Gabel hinted that there could be continued university use when she said the university appreciates 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 partnership and collaboration."
A statement later in her presentation seemed to guarantee continued forestry education, but with no promises that would happen in Cloquet.
"I can assure all of our stakeholders that we will continue to provide world class research and teaching opportunities in forestry," she said.
Following Gabel's presentation, regent Darrin Rosha asked about an email from a trade group that asked when they would be able to provide input.
"Obviously there's some pretty clear issues involved here but there's also some other folks that have a stake of some sort," Rosha said. "Giving them an opportunity to participate in the dialogue would seem to be consistent with what they were understanding in the case."
Gabel said the university will be planning a series of public engagements and officials will be responding to letters, emails and other inquiries.
Rick Horton, executive vice president of Minnesota Forest Industries, told the Pine Knot last week that he hopes the Board of Regents will seek input.
"I hope the regents will take pause and start talking to stakeholders, rather than presenting this as a fait accompli," he said.
Carlton County commissioners Dick Brenner and Gary Peterson brought the issue up at Tuesday's board meeting. Commissioners unanimously agreed the county should send a letter of concern, stating that such a move could destroy an important commitment to "our future forest industry." A letter is to be written by board chairman Brenner, land commissioner Greg Bernu and county coordinator Dennis Genereau.
Comments ranged from worries about loss of jobs, the end of 100-plus years of forestry research work in the region, and the loss of a complex of buildings that host many groups throughout the year.
"Leave the forestry school open," Bernu said during the meeting, "and treat it much like the Cloquet airport is run, using reservation land but operated autonomously."
The lack of concrete information is a concern, Bernu told the Pine Knot.
"Nobody knows, that's the issue," he said. "So everybody has to plan for a worst-case scenario of the university just walking away."