New tribal liaison helps Superior National Forest respect treaty rights

Superior National Forest sign along the Gunflint Trail
Greg Seitz/Quetico-Superior Wilderness News

A new staff member with the U.S. Forest Service will provide dedicated communication and coordination with tribes and tribal entities in northern Minnesota. Tribal liaison Juan Martinez moved to the state in June to take on the role.

Juan Martinez, first full-time tribal liaison for Superior National Forest. Photo courtesy WTIP

It’s the first time the National Forest that includes the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness has had such a position. The other National Forest in Minnesota, the Chippewa, already has a full-time tribal liaison. The Superior National Forest is located on the homeland of the Anishinaabe people, and is entirely contained with areas ceded in an 1854 treaty which preserved several rights for Indigenous people.

Martinez, a native of New Mexico, previously served as a tribal liaison for the Bureau of Land Management in northern Nevada, WTIP reports. Before that, he worked as a wildlife biologist on the Carson National Forest in northern New Mexico. His ancestors are Tewa, Comanche, and Hispanic. Martinez says a big part of his job will be hearing what Native people, who have treaty rights across entire region, have to say about Superior National Forest issues.

Trust and treaties

“The tribes have always wanted to have their voice be heard, so that’s not really a new thing,” Martinez told WTIP. “So, for me, having more emphasis on the government doing their listening of that voice has been really helpful.”

In January, just five days after taking office, President Joe Biden issued a memorandum instructing federal agencies to make tribes and treaties a “cornerstone” of federal policy.

“History demonstrates that we best serve Native American people when Tribal governments are empowered to lead their communities, and when Federal officials speak with and listen to Tribal leaders in formulating Federal policy that affects Tribal Nations,” the memo reads.

One issue where Martinez has already gotten involved is the proposed expansion of Lutsen Mountains ski area. The company is hoping to nearly double its skiable acres by developing runs, lifts, and infrastructure on nearly 500 acres of neighboring National Forest land. Those plans have run into opposition from tribes with treaty rights.

“The federal government has a trust responsibility to maintain treaty resources and consult with tribes on a government-to-government basis,” wrote Robert Deschampe, chairman of the Grand Portage Band, in an October letter to the Cook County Chamber of Commerce. “Tribes are co-managers and stewards of these lands and have a legal interest in protecting natural resources for present and future generations.”

Copper-nickel conflict

The conflict over the Lutsen proposal is just one area where the Forest Service must closely cooperate with tribes. Proposed copper-nickel mines in northern Minnesota have also raised several concerns about how it would affect lands and waters subject to the 1854 treaty.

Tribal liaison Martinez will be part of navigating the issues, listening to tribes and ensuring their long history on the land and contemporary rights are respected.

“This was all their traditional homeland before the Forest Service acquired it,” Martinez told MPR News. “So it’s important that we do our due diligence and, and maintain and stay on top of that consultation and coordination.”

While he was born and raised in the Southwest, Martinez says he plans to enjoy northern Minnesota’s natural resources — even in winter. For one thing, he’s looking forward to ice fishing, and generally exploring the woods and waters of northern Minnesota.

“It’s a resource rich environment,” Sonny Myers, the director of the 1854 Treaty Authority told WTIP. “It’s important to get out there. Not only that, it’s important for the liaison to get out and visit the reservations and see where people live and what are they doing there.”

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