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Tribes do their part to keep air clean. Now, they want to make sure pollution from afar doesn't put that at risk.

Rice Lake would have been destroyed by the Crandon mine due to being located two miles downstream from the site.
Rice Lake would have been destroyed by the Crandon mine due to being located two miles downstream from the site.

CRANDON, Wis. − In the 1970s, Forest County Potawatomi Community elders noticed something strange happening to the ecosystem in northeast Wisconsin.

Plant leaves changed sizes, animals moved to new habitats, medicines the tribe gathered became less potent or disappeared altogether.

Nothing in the tribe’s oral history or traditional knowledge explained the abnormalities.

“The earth is trying to tell us something,” tribal elder Jim Thunder said in describing the situation at a climate change conference in the early 2000s. “You learn by watching what’s going on around you.”

First in the series: Great Lakes tribes’ knowledge of nature could be key to climate change. Will people listen?

Second in the series: Indigenous approach to agriculture could change our relationship to food, help the land

Heeding the elders’ concerns, tribal researchers studied lakes on the reservation and discovered they were tainted with mercury. They traced the mercury to a nearby power plant that burned coal. The chemical element – which has much higher concentrations in coal than other fossil fuels – was emitted into the atmosphere during the combustion process, and fell onto the reservation via rain.

Mercury can have irreversible, toxic health effects. The discovery was possible because elders listened to the land and spoke up.

“The clean air efforts of the tribe go back to the tribal elders,” said Jeff Crawford, the attorney general for the Forest County Potawatomi. “They are the protectors of our cultural beliefs.”

The Seven Generations belief system of the Potawatomi, and many of the more than 500 tribal nations in the U.S., is that stewardship of the environment is essential so that the ecosystem will still be healthy at least seven generations from now. That includes air quality, and many tribes in the Great Lakes region have developed innovative ways to protect that resource.

But air doesn’t abide by any sort of man-made boundary. Climate change – largely driven by global reliance on fossil fuels – is expected to worsen pollution, and that pollution won't just stop at reservation borders.

Scientists say there must be “a substantial reduction in overall fossil fuel use” and until the world’s largest fossil fuel emitters, like the U.S., curb those fuels, there’s only so much progress that can be made. Greenhouse gases stay in the atmosphere for decades.

Tashena Van Zile, Tribal Historic Preservation Coordinator for the Wisconsin Department of Transportation and a Ojibwe tribal member, speaks about the location of the mine during the 20th Anniversary Celebration of the Historic Crandon Mine PurchaseOctober 28 in Crandon.
Tashena Van Zile, Tribal Historic Preservation Coordinator for the Wisconsin Department of Transportation and a Ojibwe tribal member, speaks about the location of the mine during the 20th Anniversary Celebration of the Historic Crandon Mine PurchaseOctober 28 in Crandon.

Tribe leaders obtained a seat at the table

After identifying the polluted air affecting their reservation, Forest County Potawatomi leaders took a big step. They applied for a special classification that would recognize the importance of clean air and help them protect it.

The federal Clean Air Act sorts areas of the country into three classes. Each class permits different levels of air quality deterioration. Most of the country belongs in Class II. Large national parks and wilderness areas are designated as Class I – places where the air is pristine and must remain that way.

States and tribal governments have the authority to apply for Class I status in certain areas, and obtaining that status means they get notified – and a chance to weigh in – when developers propose a project that would pollute air in the area.  In 1993, the Forest County Potawatomi sent a letter to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency stating their intent to have their reservation lands redesignated as Class I.

In the tribe’s application, which was formally submitted in 1995, officials explained that in the tribe’s cultural and spiritual practices, natural resources “must be drawn from spiritually pure natural environments. Concern about access to these resources and the ability of the environment to provide the pure resources needed to sustain Potawatomi culture occupies the thoughts and prayers of the community.”

Tribal officials also explained that clean air is important to the economy of the tribe and of northern Wisconsin, where recreation and tourism are primary to the economic base.

In the application, Thunder lamented the pollution of the air and other natural resources.

“We are abusing our Mother Earth,” he wrote. “I pray to our Creator that we look back so that we may see ahead. … Let us respect our children and, above all, let us live our lives in accordance with our beliefs.”

It wasn’t an easy road. Legal battles stretched on for more than a decade as industry lobbyists and developers fought against the redesignation. Crawford recalled the state of Michigan opposing the designation vigorously.

But in 2008, the tribal lands gained the Class I designation. Today, the tribe is one of just six across the U.S. to accomplish that. When a development with the potential to pollute air as far as 186 miles from the Potawatomi Reservation applies for a permit, tribal officials have the chance to weigh in.

"That's a pretty exclusive classification, and a ... stringent and rigorous process to go through," said Ben Giwojna, the tribal air coordinator for the EPA’s upper Midwest region. “It’s quite an endeavor, I’ll say that."

It isn’t the only way tribes can exert influence when it comes to air quality. Eight of the 35 tribes in the region hold “treatment as a state” status, Giwojna explained, meaning they get to operate their own air monitoring programs.

“Anytime we can acknowledge and recognize tribal sovereignty, it’s a good thing,” he said.

Under that status, the tribes also can achieve different benefits, like a chance to review air pollution permits.

Those reviews can provide an important opportunity for tribes to share Indigenous knowledge of the flora and fauna in the area and how it might be affected by air pollution, Giwojna said.

“They have their own perspective on things that we don’t have working from the regional office in Chicago. They’re on the ground and know the lay of the land,” he said. “They have that background that they can impart … that maybe we don’t have at the moment in EPA circles.”

Menominee Tribal Enterprises manages the Menominee Forest. The 200,000 acre forest removes pollutants from the air and stores more carbon than other forested lands in the area.
Menominee Tribal Enterprises manages the Menominee Forest. The 200,000 acre forest removes pollutants from the air and stores more carbon than other forested lands in the area.

If credits are given out, shouldn't tribes get some?

Tribal communities have been able to weigh in on other air quality issues as well. Keshena, northwest of Green Bay, is home to what scientists around the world call one of the healthiest primeval forests in North America.

The more than 200,000-acre Menominee Forest, managed by the Menominee Nation, removes pollutants from the air and reduces greenhouse gas emissions by storing carbon. A 2018 study found that tribal forests such as the Menominee were able to store more carbon than other forested lands in the area, particularly because the trees have been growing for centuries.

“Communities downwind of the Menominee Forest benefit because they have less pollution, less carbon and better air quality,” said Michael Skenadore, president of Menominee Tribal Enterprises, which runs the tribe’s sustainable forestry operations.

Nikki Cooley, co-director of the Institute for Tribal Environmental Professionals based at Northern Arizona University, called the forest an “amazing example” of traditional knowledge preserving a longstanding natural resource.

“(Menominee tribal members) often talk about trees as … a community where they support each other in their growth,” she said. “They are working together to survive, but also to help others thrive – and when I say others, I mean humans as well.”

Cooley said she’s happy that traditional knowledge is gaining appreciation, but wary that credit for that knowledge won’t be correctly assigned. If profit is produced, she said, it needs to go back to the tribes.

That’s where organizations like the National Indian Carbon Coalition come in.

Bryan Van Stippen, a member of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin, is the program director of the coalition, which helps tribal nations and individual Indigenous landowners develop carbon sequestration or offset projects to be able to take advantage of carbon credits.

He believes tribes should be able to protect clean air and other natural resources – and benefit from their longstanding care for them – as new industries aimed at mitigating climate change spring up around them.

Carbon capture reduces carbon dioxide emissions by capturing the gas from where it is produced before it’s released into the atmosphere. Carbon credit projects allow a person or group that will store carbon – like in a tribally managed forest – to financially benefit by selling “credits” for the storage to a company that wants to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions.

Critics of carbon credits argue that such buying and selling doesn’t actually reduce the amount of the gas released by the buying company and only allows it to claim eco-friendly status. Still, the market is hot, and Van Stippen wants to make sure that if credit is given out for environmental stewardship, the tribes get a fair share.

For a long time, Van Stippen said, tribes had to make money by cutting trees down. Now, these projects are “a tool in the tool chest to help tribes protect and preserve that tribal natural resource,” he said. “So now we have another mechanism to derive this revenue.”

The solar arrays on the roof of the Potawatomi Casino in Milwaukee. The Potawatomi tribe is trying to do its part by producing more of its own renewable energy, particularly through solar panels. 





Jovanny Hernandez / Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
The solar arrays on the roof of the Potawatomi Casino in Milwaukee. The Potawatomi tribe is trying to do its part by producing more of its own renewable energy, particularly through solar panels. Jovanny Hernandez / Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Climate change hastens air quality problems, urgency to fix them

Climate change adds a layer of concern, especially in urban areas.

Temperature and precipitation changes are expected to increase chances for unhealthy summertime ozone levels. Hotter summers are making stagnant air days more frequent, according to an analysis from Climate Central, a nonprofit organization that reports on climate science. On those days, pollutants like ozone get trapped and make breathing more difficult.

The situation is particularly challenging in Wisconsin, which has the third-largest racial disparity in the country when it comes to air pollution, according to a recent University of Illinois study. The disparity is most pronounced in Milwaukee, which has the highest concentration of Indigenous residents in the state.

In a 2022 report on the status of tribal air quality, the National Tribal Air Association wrote that as outdoor air pollution forces people to spend more time indoors, indoor air quality is becoming a greater concern for tribes.

Almost all tribes surveyed said mold was a concern in indoor housing, according to the report, followed by asthma and allergy triggers. Outdated appliances and worn-out air ducts leave elders and people with respiratory issues particularly vulnerable.

Crawford, with the Forest County Potawatomi, called mitigating climate change a “constant battle” and said the tribe is trying to do its part by producing more of its own renewable energy, particularly through solar panels. Since solar energy does not produce air pollution or greenhouse gas, it can have an indirect, but positive effect on the environment when it replaces other energy sources that produce more pollution. In rural, northern Wisconsin, the tribal communities can be identified easily by the relatively large number of solar panels on buildings.

The Forest County Potawatomi also installed solar panels on its buildings in Milwaukee, including the casino hotel in the Menomonee River valley. Since 2010, tribal officials estimate, their solar panel installations and energy efficiency projects have prevented the emissions of 75,419 metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

They hope non-Indigenous communities follow suit.

“Everyone, governments and individuals collectively, has to do their part to start healing the world,” Crawford said. “We’re trying to lead by example.”

This four-part series examines how Indigenous communities in Wisconsin are pushing to protect land, air and water. It is supported by a climate change reporting grant from the Poynter Institute, through funding by the Joyce Foundation. All content was produced by the Journal Sentinel staff, part of the USA TODAY Network, under the guidance of its editors.

This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Indigenous tribes keep air clean, but pollution knows no boundaries