CASS LAKE -- The Chippewa National Forest is a unique asset for Minnesotans, one that needs to be managed for multiple uses, says U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman.
"National forests need to be managed," the Minnesota Republican told reporters after meeting with both Chippewa National Forest and Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe officials here Tuesday.
"It's in the interests of the conservation community, it's of interest to the environmental community to manage, and it's of interest to the logging community manage it," he said. "What you don't want is what has happened in other parts of the country, where you see lack of management and you see forest fire and devastation.
"Then we all lose," he added.
Coleman and Leech Lake Tribal Council members, plus Cass Lake Mayor Wayne LaDuke, toured the Chippewa National Forest Headquarters and held a frank discussion on building relationships.
The Chippewa National Forest this year is celebrating its 100th anniversary, having been established as a national forest May 23, 1908.
"The common future is to make sure that there is adequate funding to adequately manage these forests, and to do that in a way that we have an ongoing dialogue, particularly here with the band, so that we're working together with a shared vision," Coleman said.
Ninety percent of the Leech Lake Reservation overlays the Chippewa National Forest, which Coleman also calls a unique resource.
"This is an incredible resource," he said. "It's important to the state, to the surrounding communities, important to the band. The good news is this is a treasure, it's not a problem. It's a huge opportunity."
How the resource is managed is critically important to the local economy, Coleman said. But that must be done in partnership with the Leech Lake Band.
Simply an ongoing conversation, such as that held Tuesday, is a must, Coleman said. "If you do that, you're more than halfway there. What I tried today was to facilitate some of that conversation, to be part of it."
There seems to be good levels of trust to start with, he said. "What is unique here is the co-location of the band ... which makes it one of the unique areas in the entire country."
Earlier this year, Coleman fought administration efforts to cut the U.S. Department of Agriculture's budget by 25 percent for the U.S. Forest Service, which would have affected operations at both the Chippewa and Superior National Forests, gaining $2 million to forestall the 25 percent cut.
He says the newly enacted federal farm bill will help the National Forest manage its 1.6 million acres.
"A big part of the farm bill -- which is agriculture, nutrition and forestry -- is the biofuels piece, which is really important," Coleman said. "The supervisor here (Rob Harper) wants the Forest Service to be at the cutting edge of this whole transition to biofuels, and there's a lot in this farm bill that really accelerates opportunities and incentives for that."
Aside from management issues, "there are opportunities for this resource to be part of the key to America's independence from foreign oil," the Republican said. "Biofuels is critical to that, and there's a lot in the farm bill to provide opportunities for folks for research and investment for funding in this area."
Minnesotans "simply love this resource," Coleman said of the National Forest, but added that there are challenges. "Sometimes people want it to recreate, others want it to provide jobs and economic development, others want to preserve it. The nature of a diverse society is that you get complex perspectives that you figure a way to work it out."
He noted that Mayor LaDuke had called for a partnership of all entities and that more jobs is key.
"The most important thing a mayor should be thinking about is jobs," Coleman said, adding that a Chippewa National Forest goal is to hire more Leech Lake Band members.
"But beyond that, we've got to be thinking about what it is that can bring jobs to this community," he said. "What can you do with tourism? What can you do with timber? That's two big pieces of it. There's also some energy pieces that relate to it around here, but those two areas need to be developed."
People of good will, with a shared vision can make things work, Coleman said. "You saw that reflected in the discussion today."
He told the officials that he's an optimist by nature, and that he was encouraged by the candor of all participants. "The answer to a resolution is trust, an open conversation and creating a shared vision and just move forward.
"I'm encouraged, because this is a really special place," he said.