Working with Tribes

November 2022

For millennia, ecological knowledge amassed by Native American tribes has been instrumental in managing forests to sustain Indigenous cultures, communities, economies, and resources. During Native American Heritage Month, our web features highlight work – past and future – with Native American Tribes. Features include an introduction to a Tribal Relations Specialist working to enhance connections among Native American tribes and the Northern Research Station and Forest Products Laboratory, a partnership that is developing natural solutions to clean up contaminated tribal lands; and a study that communicates important lessons learned from a tribe’s long history of managing red pine forests

Environmental Education

Screenshot of map.Tribal Connections is an interactive map that shows the connection between national forests and grasslands, tribal trust lands and tribal lands ceded as part of a treaty. 

Jennifer Ballinger, Tribal Relations Specialist

Jennifer Ballinger. A life-long “Great Laker” Jennifer Ballinger, the new Tribal Relations Specialist serving the Northern Research Station and Forest Products Laboratory, is very excited about her new job and the opportunities she will have to better connect Forest Service researchers with tribal members and facilitate information exchange.

Ballinger grew up just outside Detroit, MI and like many of us entering college was unsure about what path she wanted to pursue. But taking a few plant biology courses helped spark her interest in the natural world and better connect her to her tribal roots. Ballinger graduated from the University of Minnesota with a double major in biology and American Indian studies.

After graduation Ballinger worked as an outreach specialist with the Great Lakes Indian and Fish Wildlife Commission (GLIFWC) where she spent half her time on outreach and engagement and half time working on the mercury program’s safe fish consumption advisories. The position provided her ample opportunities to spend time outdoors in the Ceded Territory in Northern Wisconsin, Northern Minnesota and Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

“Natural resource work complements my personal interests,” said Ballinger. “I am a direct descendant of the Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe, and now that I have a daughter, learning more about our tribal lifeways is even more important.”

After seven years with GLIFWC, Ballinger returned to school and earned a master’s degree in public health administration and policy. She then worked as an environmental scientist supporting NOAA’s Office for Coastal Management on their Great Lakes Restoration Initiative projects. She started her position with the Forest Service this October.

“I am excited that there is this type of position in the Forest Service,” said Ballinger. “There is a lot of cool research the tribes are doing on their own and I want to bring that information to the Forest Service and figure out the best ways to bring the agency and tribes together.”

In her spare time, Ballinger is honing her skills in running a sugar bush (red maples) in her backyard and hoping to get some tips from her new Forest Service colleagues.

More Information >>

The Right Tool for the Job – Using Nature to Stabilize and Remediate Sand Point

Sign at Sand Point indicates partnership to remediate contaminated site.Trees are superheroes of nature. Did you know that trees can even clean up a moving target of contamination? Forest Service scientists are identifying tree varieties with potential to clean up mining waste dumped decades ago near the shores of a Great Lakes tribal community.

The Keweenaw Bay Indian Community (KBIC) is a federally recognized American Indian Tribe located along Lake Superior in present-day Baraga County, Michigan. Historically, surrounding areas were exploited for their natural resources, particularly via industrial mining. During the 20th century, a nearby copper ore stamp mill called Mass Mill processed and dumped over 6 billion pounds of copper ore processing waste material (i.e., stamp sands) into Keweenaw Bay, less than 5 miles north of the KBIC. Over time, Lake Superior has eroded these stamp sands deposits and transported them south to Sand Point, a culturally significant site for the KBIC consisting of powwow grounds, a traditional healing clinic, wild rice beds, and campgrounds. Stamp sands contain elevated levels of heavy metals, which not only can adversely impact human health and the environment, but can also impair beneficial uses of Sand Point. Researchers at the Northern Research Station are studying nature-based solutions to address this environmental challenge.

Over the last few decades, Northern Research Station scientists have worked to advance phytotechnologies — green tools, technologies, and plant material for greening and cleaning brownfields, mine sites, landfills, military installations, and similar areas. With funding from the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, Supervisory Research Plant Geneticist Ron Zalesny, Pathways Intern Elizabeth Rogers, and Forester Ryan Vinhal assessed the productivity and heavy metal tolerance of specialized, fast-growing poplar and willow trees grown in stamp sands. Using a process called phyto-recurrent selection, the researchers conducted multiple greenhouse selection cycles to identify promising tree varieties that are ideally suited for sustainable pollution and stabilization solutions at Sand Point.

The next step will be to establish a buffer of the selected tree varieties at Sand Point to clean and stabilize the shoreline, address the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community’s restoration goals and respond to a historical environmental injustice. These buffers will stabilize the Sand Point site, reduce toxicity of stamp sands contaminants, increase wildlife habitat and recreation opportunities, and support beautification of the area.

Learn more about Phyto-Recurrent Selection >>

Reimagining Forests with Inclusion of Native American Perspectives

Red pine forest.In recent decades, attitudes have evolved about two key aspects of the red pine forests that extend across Northern Minnesota, specifically the complexity of those forests and the rights of Tribes to have a voice in their management.

For a century, scientists and foresters viewed red pine forests as structurally simple, single-aged stands that generate in the wake of fire, and traditional management followed this pattern by establishing even-age plantations of red pine. For the past two decades, Brian Palik, a research forester based in Grand Rapids, Minn., has focused on exploring the more complicated story of red pine and alternatives to traditional management of these forests. Palik’s research has established that a red pine forest is considerably more complicated than previously believed, often involving a mix of as many as 12 different pine, other conifer, and deciduous species. His research has documented benefits to wildlife and timber when management is based on a natural model emphasizing diverse age classes, natural gaps in forests, and more tree species.

Much of Palik’s research has been conducted on the Cutfoot Experimental Forest on the Chippewa National Forest, a 1.6-million-acre forest that includes the footprint of the Leech Lake Indian Reservation, with about 672,167 acres managed by the National Forest and remaining lands managed by state, county, tribal governments, and private landowners. Over the years that Palik’s work was reimagining the nature of red pine forests, the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe and others have advocated for reimagining forest management to be more inclusive of Native American values and perspectives.

Today, the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe’s Division of Resource Management has a voice in all aspects of national forest management and frequently partners with Palik on red pine research. This relationship has contributed to development of silvicultural approaches that reimagine the Great Lakes pine forests and are changing the way the resource is managed across the Lake States to be more inclusive of complex age structure and tree species diversity – and Native American values.

More Information on Variable retention harvesting in Great Lakes mixed-pine forests >>

Last updated: 11/01/2022