BEMIDJI Honor the Earth, an environmental nonprofit, is protesting a proposed lumber mill on the outskirts Leech Lake Nation land.
Representatives from Honor the Earth organized an event at the Northwest Indian Community Development Center, Bemidji on April 19, to raise awareness about the potential environmental impacts of the Huber Mill that would be built in Cohasset between Grand Rapids (Michigan) and the Leech Lake Nation.
Jamie Konopacky, Honor the Earth’s environmental counsel, stated that the issue of environmental justice underpins all of it. We have examples all across the country of toxic sites on treaty land that is adjacent to reservations.
The event was attended by 35 people. It highlighted the potential environmental harm of the project and raised legal concerns about the approval without the required Environmental Impact Statement.
Itasca County, as well as the city of Cohasset, receive millions of dollars in state subsidies
The Minnesota Legislature passed a special exemption
For the Huber Mill project, it would only be required to provide a smaller Environmental Assessment Worksheet instead of a complete EIS.
This EAW was conducted under the supervision and oversight of the city, Cohasset. Honor the Earth along with other opponents to the project deem the city not qualified to handle an ecological review.
Konopacky explained that the state law states that if you have a huge project like this that has significant air pollution impact, you need an agency with scientific knowledge and expert to review it. The city of Cohasset clearly does not have this expertise.
Other groups have voiced similar concerns, including the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, the economic development agency Greater Bemidji and the Economic Development Agency Greater Bemidji. They are calling for either a complete EIS or an EAW to be performed by a qualified agency.
Other organizations are fully supporting the mill, such as APEX, a Duluth-based economic development agency, and several trade groups that represent workers in the lumber and timber industries.
Honor the Earth also challenged the EAW, arguing that Cohasset has too strong a vested interest to the project to conduct an impartial environmental review.
The mill could bring 158 jobs to the region and could boost struggling local industries. The proposed project has been praised by members of the Cohasset City Council, who cite the community’s benefits.
Konopacky claimed that Cohasset was biased in this particular case. It is obviously unfair that an entity with such biases oversees what should be an objective scientific process.
Konopacky shared his story of a
to allow public comment on the Huber Mill. Although tribal and community members were guaranteed the right to testify, the council decided to accept only written comments.
Konopacky said that many people didn’t submit written comments, as they were told that they would be able provide public testimony.
The meeting lasted less than 20 minutes and was concluded by the Cohasset City Council approbating Huber Mills EAW.
The Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy says that the Huber mill, if it is built, will be the 11th most polluting facility in Minnesota. It would produce an estimated 517.370 tonnes of annual greenhouse gas emissions.
Concerns also surround the project’s impact on wild rice habitats and local wetlands. Huber Mill will drain 28.5 acres of wetland in order to make way for a railway.
Annie Humphrey, a Leech Lake member who works for Honor the Earth, stated that the landscape will change. This is why I’m here, and why I think the Huber Mill can be so dangerous.
These wetlands are located in the Mississippi river watershed and connect with wild rice beds nearby. They are federally and state protected and require a permit by the Army Corps of Engineers to be drained and developed.
Opposition to the Huber Mill is urging people to submit comments in order to request the Corps to deny the permit.
Konopacky stated that they have identified many alternative sites. If there are other options, Konopacky said that we don’t have to fill wetlands to accomplish the project’s purposes.
Concerns were also raised regarding the logging practices that the mill would use and the amount of trees it would harvest.
Huber Mill stated that it would collect 400,000 cords of wood, mainly aspen from the area, in the EAW. In 2019, the DNR set a total collection limit of 875,000 cords across the entire state.
Humphrey said that she is not against logging as an industry but that it must be sustainable. This is why she’s interested in supporting alternatives to large-scale industrial lumbermills.
Humphrey said that although we can say no Huber Mill, it is not enough to have answers. We need to be able to offer alternatives. There are other ways to do things. We don’t need this.
Humphrey drew attention to one person in the audience who owns a lumber mill. His method involves going out to pick each tree to be removed, rather than clearing an entire area.
Humphrey stated that he doesn’t go and chop down everything. This is the way we should log our forests.
Legal challenges and actions
Huber Mill is also being challenged on the grounds that it has not followed the correct steps, including consultation with local tribal governments.
Konopacky stated that it would be against treaty law and other federal laws that require the consent of tribes with rights to this area.
The Huber Mill is located just one mile from the Leech Lake Nation. It is also on 1855 Treaty land, where Indigenous people have a legal right to hunt, gather, and fish.
The Huber Mill will desecrate Mother Nature, which is sacred for my family. I don’t consent to the destruction Mother Nature, nor my traditions.
Alli Fairbanks is a 14-year old girl from Leech Lake
However, the Leech Lake Band was not informed about the project and was instead notified via a press release.
Konopacky stated that there was no meaningful consultation before the decisions were made.
Honor the Earth asked participants to sign postcards addressed both to Gov. Tim Walz, their tribal chairs, if any. They were encouraged to share their testimony through affidavits, which could be notarized before leaving.
Humphrey stated that this treaty law is all we have right now. We will keep pushing and standing, we will exhaust every avenue.
Some presented their affidavits before the audience, including Alli Fairbanks of Leech Lake, 14, who shared the importance and heritage of her cultural traditions and heritage. She also shared how she gathers in the forests and wetlands near the reservation.
Fairbanks stated that the Huber Mill will desecrate Mother Nature, which is sacred for my family. I refuse to consent to the destruction Mother Nature and my traditional beliefs.
Participants also took the time to brainstorm new strategies to oppose construction of the mill and looked back at other successful campaigns against other projects.
The tribes, if united in this state, will have a clean surface, clean water, clean air, said Brenda Whitebird. She is originally from Bad River, Wis. and now lives in Ponemah.
Humphrey and Honor the Earth organized the Bemidji event as one of many in recent days. Other meetings were held at Walker, Cass Lake, and Grand Rapids.
The next steps for Honor the Earth are to continue to support Leech Lake Nation’s appeal for the EAW and fight the various permits that Huber Mill is seeking. The organization also hopes to increase awareness and get more people involved by writing letters, comments, and other forms of communication.
Whitebird said that pen and paper are the best weapons in battle.