Climate change impacts on Menominee nation's forest home focus of NSF funding

By Matthew Carroll
October 10, 2016

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- A Native American tribal nation in Wisconsin faces cultural and economic challenges as climate change impacts its forest home. A $1.7 million grant from the National Science Foundation will study this relationship and how it could inform decision-making about forest management.

Erica Smithwick, associate professor of geography and associate in the Earth and Environmental Systems Institute, Penn State, is the principal investigator on the five-year project, funded from the NSF Dynamics of Coupled Natural and Human Systems (CNH) program.

Smithwick will work with an interdisciplinary Penn State team in collaboration with co-principal investigator Christopher Caldwell, director of the Sustainable Development Institute at the College of Menominee Nation. The Penn State team also includes Nancy Tuana, professor of philosophy, Alexander Klippel, associate professor of geography, Rebecca Bird, professor of anthropology, Klaus Keller, professor of geosciences and Robert Nicholas, research associate in EESI.

The project centers around the Menominee Nation, an indigenous people in the Great Lakes region whose remaining ancestral lands contain a contiguous forest that has been managed sustainably for timber harvesting for more than 150 years. The Menominee forest is vital for the cultural and economic identity of the more than 9,000 enrolled tribal members who live on or near the reservation, which is located approximately 45 miles outside of Green Bay, Wisconsin.

"The Menominee are increasingly noticing that there are threats to their forest sustainability practices," Smithwick said. "They are noticing maybe some species aren't doing as well, and some trees are suffering from pests or pathogens. They are wondering how their ability to manage the forest will be impacted if those disturbances become more severe."

Menominee Tribal Enterprises

Menominee Tribal Enterprises, the tribal nation’s forest products enterprise, sustainably manages the forest through timber harvesting. Penn State researchers are studying cultural and economic impacts the tribe faces because of climate change. 

IMAGE: Erica Smithwick / Penn State

Penn State has collaborated with the College of Menominee Nation for several years under the Network for Sustainable Climate Risk Management (SCRiM) project, directed by Keller.

"They have this ethos that this resource basically has to sustain them in perpetuity," said Robert Nicholas, who recently visited the nation through SCRiM. "The forest is built into the tribe's stories about themselves, their history."

The new funding will allow Penn State's partnership with the Menominee to continue, and will help researchers better understand how tribal values and customs inform the types of decisions the nation will face due to a changing climate.

"College of Menominee Nation is one of 37 Tribal Colleges and Universities that serve tribal nations in the U.S," Caldwell said. The ability to evaluate applicable and effective tools and resources for tribal decision-making is a role that TCUs must continue to develop on behalf of their communities and other tribal communities. This project will develop more options for tribal decision-makers to consider as they plan a future for our people, community and forest. It will also provide opportunities that will provide opportunities for our students to develop into our future scientists, managers, and leaders."

Working with project partners Robert Scheller and Melissa Lucash at Portland State University, the team will simulate the impacts of management strategies under different future climate conditions, and see how biodiversity and economic factors will be impacted.

"We analyze how well different management strategies achieve a wide range of objectives in the face of climate and other uncertainties," Keller said. "This is a hard and important problem."

The team will partner with the Menominee to better understand how their tribal values inform the types of decision choices that concern them. This will ensure that the project's research is focused on the knowledge the Menominee need to make the decisions that matter to them.

The project also has a virtual reality component led by Klippel. State-of-the-art 3-D and 4-D virtual reality images will allow stakeholders to visualize forests of the future.

"Environmental decision-making is going through a paradigm shift, from communicating with maps and graphs to VR and 3D modeling," Klippel said. "This allows us to ground our scenarios in experiential landscapes, enabling stakeholders, scientists, and interested participants to witness potential effects of climate change first."

Using the technology, the team can study issues like how dramatically a landscape must change for participants to notice, and how being immersed in a climate-change scenario impacts values.

"Maybe the forest looks similar, except the species are different," Smithwick said. "Now imagine that perhaps that missing species was one from which you used to harvest berries when you were growing up. For you, that would be a big loss. We are hoping that being in the virtual environment helps people perceive the loss in a different, more visceral way."

The project is one of 11 selected for CNH funding this year. The grants, which totaled $16.7 million, support research into complex interactions between humans and natural systems, according to the NSF.

  • Menominee drummers

    A group of Menominee drummers sing traditional songs at a meeting on the tribal nation’s land about 45 miles outside Green Bay, Wisconsin. 

    IMAGE: Erica Smithwick / Penn State
  • Menominee tribal clans

    A museum display represents the Menominee tribal clans -- Eagle, Bear, Wolf, Crane and Moose. The clans are central to the nation’s origin story, and are deeply rooted in the forest. Penn State researchers are studying cultural and economic impacts the tribe faces because of climate change.

    IMAGE: Erica Smithwick / Penn State
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Last Updated January 23, 2017