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Native American Tribes: Stewarding Land for Parks and Recreation

Frog Bay Tribal National Park. Photo: Grandon Harris

If you’ve been near the Red Cliff Reservation in Wisconsin’s northernmost reaches, you were likely there to visit Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, a stunning collection of 21 small islands in Lake Superior. But as of this summer, you can tack on a visit to an adjacent 89-acre tract of transitional boreal forest and lakefront called the Frog Bay Tribal National Park.

"It's not affiliated with the National Park System, [the name is] the tribe's own designation," says Chad Abel, natural resource administrator for the Red Cliff tribe. "The tribe wanted to call it 'national,' based on conservation values they're instilling at the park and because all of the general public has access to the land, which is somewhat unusual for tribal land."

The park was made possible thanks to the generosity and foresightedness of husband and wife team David and Marjorie Johnson. David, who is in his mid-90s, purchased the tract in the 1980s for $34,000. Since the couple were advancing in age, and because they did not think their children could afford paying the high property taxes, they wanted to ensure the land would remain protected and undeveloped, as it had been since they purchased it.

Tia Nelson, a friend of the Johnsons and daughter of Gaylord Nelson, the late Wisconsin governor and United States senator, brought the Johnson and BRC together. The Nelson were neighbors of the Johnsons in Madison, where David worked as a professor at the University of Wisconsin. Tia learned of the Johnson's wishes and contacted the Bayfield Regional Conservancy (BRC). (Gaylord Nelson was also an early environmentalist and founded Earth Day.) The BRC, based just a few miles from the reservation in the town of Bayfield, works to protect and conserve Lake Superior shoreline and forests.

"David wanted to sell the land to us," says Ellen Kwiatkowski, BRC's executive director. "But we said we didn't want to own it," that it should go back to the tribe. When the Red Cliff Reservation was formed in the mid 1800s, she says, there were 14,000 acres divided up among the 200 Red Cliff families. Over the years, however, many lots were sold off to people outside the tribe—sometimes not through proper means.

"To gain title [to the land] they needed a certificate of competency signed by a white person," Kwiatkowski explains. "Something happened with that, people sometimes got swindled—thought they were signing off timber but were actually selling the land."

The Red Cliff tribe welcomed the idea of reclaiming the land under the condition that they would be able to conserve it, but the tribe lacked the funds to purchase it—the tract was appraised at nearly $1 million. So the BRC applied for a grant from the Coastal and Estuarine Land Conservation Program (CELCP), a NOAA program designed to protect coastal and estuarine lands considered important for their conservation value.

CELCP approved the Frog Bay proposal and the resulting grant covered half the purchase price of the land, while David Johnson agreed to donate the rest. The park has "huge historical and cultural significance for the tribe," says Kwiatkowski. "But it also has a really high ecological value. It's a transitional boreal forest, which is very rare, and restricted in its range because of climate change and habitat loss."

The tribe has signed a strict conservation easement that dictates what can and cannot occur on park property. The beach can be accessed by boat—sea kayaking is popular throughout the Apostle Islands—or by a single, short road off the nearest highway. No future development or commercial activity is allowed and there is no entrance fee, though donations are accepted.

"No vehicles or ATVs or snow machines are allowed in the park," says Abel. "But there are trails for snowshoeing, crosscountry skiing, and hiking."

"It's just a magical woods," says Kwiatkowski, speaking from her office in Bayfield. "It's raining here right now, but if I was in those woods I wouldn't feel the rain because the canopy is so thick. There are rare plants and because the park is contiguous with a lot of other natural land, it supports a wide variety of charismatic megafauna, including black bear, Canada lynx, bobcats, and pine martins. It has views of five of the Apostle Islands—it's a completely pristine beach."

Frog Bay Tribal National Park opened August 3 and is being co-managed by both the BRC and the tribe. It opened nearly a year to the date after the Red Cliff tribe, a Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, opened the nearby Legendary Waters Resort & Casino. The resort is branded as a kind of nature-lover’s casino. Windows onto the lake line the gaming rooms; hiking, sailing, kayaking, and mountain biking tours compete for guests’ attention. That might sound odd, but given its location on the shores of Gitche Gumee and the significance the lake holds in Red Cliff culture, it’s quite fitting.

But Red Cliff isn’t the only Native American tribe that is developing parklands.

The Oglala Sioux tribe is set to take over management of the South Unit of Badlands National Park. The tribe and the National Park Service (NPS) have been working on an agreement to shift management of the 133,300-acre parcel since 2003, but the transition is likely to take a few more years at least.

The tribe already employs a crew of rangers and wildlife managers that are working to introduce the swift fox and mountain lion to the region. It wants to increase tourism to the park, add a herd of 1,200 bison, and offer cultural workshops in crafts, such as bow making and tanning.

Are these efforts signaling a move away from gaming as a revenue generator and toward more land stewardship and recreation-based tourism? Perhaps. But Native peoples, especially coastal indigenous cultures, are recognizing the larger need to mitigate and adapt to a rapidly changing climate. That’s why four Washington state tribes banded together to host the First Stewards Symposium in D.C. this summer.

At the symposium, tribal leaders from the West Coast, Alaska, Pacific Islands, the Great Lakes, East Coast, and the Gulf of Mexico joined together to meet with policy makers and climate scientists. After the event the group sent a resolution to Congress that essentially calls for a seat at the climate change table. “First Stewards call on the United States government to formally recognize us and our expertise and to consult with our tribal governments and indigenous communities for guidance in all policies that affect our way of life and to support our management efforts,” the resolution reads.

—Mary Catherine O'Connor

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