Environmental group opposes proposed northern Minnesota lumber mill
At a Bemidji event on Tuesday, April 19, representatives from Honor the Earth shared their concerns about the environmental harm the Huber Mill, a lumber mill in Cohasset, could cause if approved.
BEMIDJI — The environmental nonprofit Honor the Earth is organizing opposition against a proposed lumber mill that would be built on the outskirts of Leech Lake Nation land.
Representatives of Honor the Earth held an event on April 19 at the Northwest Indian Community Development Center in Bemidji to raise awareness about the environmental impact of the proposed Huber Mill, which would be built in the city of Cohasset between Grand Rapids and the Leech Lake Nation.
“Underlining all of it is the issue of environmental justice,” said Jamie Konopacky, who works as environmental counsel for Honor the Earth. “All across the country, we have examples of where these toxic sites are on treaty land immediately adjacent to reservations.”
The event, which around 35 people attended, outlined the project’s potential environmental harm along with legal concerns about how it has been approved without the typical Environmental Impact Statement that is usually required for a project of this size.
Along with millions of dollars in subsidies from the state of Minnesota, Itasca County and the city of Cohasset, the Minnesota Legislature passed a special exemption for the Huber Mill project so that instead of a full EIS it would only have to supply a less comprehensive Environmental Assessment Worksheet.
This EAW was done under the supervision of the city of Cohasset, which Honor the Earth and others in opposition to the project view as not properly qualified to handle an environmental review.
“Basically what the state law says is when you have a giant project like this with significant air pollution impact … you need to have an agency with scientific knowledge and expertise conduct the review,” Konopacky said. “Plainly the city of Cohasset does not have that expertise.”
Others have echoed these concerns, including the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe and the economic development agency Greater Bemidji, and are calling for either a full EIS to be completed or for the EAW to be conducted by a qualified agency.
Other organizations are fully in support of the mill, including APEX, a Duluth economic development agency and several trade groups who represent workers in the lumber, timber and trucking industries.
Honor the Earth has also challenged the EAW by contending that the city of Cohasset has too much of a vested interest in the project to conduct an environmental review without bias.
The mill would bring an estimated 158 jobs to the area and could help boost struggling local industries. Members of the Cohasset City Council have regularly praised the proposed project, citing the benefits it would bring to the community.
“The city of Cohasset is very biased in this case,” Konopacky said. “It’s obviously unfair for an entity that is that biased overseeing what is supposed to be an objective scientific process.”
Konopacky shared the story of a public hearing held in March by the Cohasset City Council to allow for public comment on the Huber Mill. Tribal and community members were guaranteed the ability to testify, but with short notice, the council decided to only accept written comments.
“Many people didn’t submit written comments because they were told they would be able to provide public testimony,” Konopacky said.
The meeting itself lasted under 20 minutes and ended with the Cohasset City Council approving Huber Mill’s EAW.
According to the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, the Huber Mill, if completed, would be the 11th largest polluter in Minnesota, producing an estimated 517,370 tons of annual greenhouse gas emissions.
Other concerns include the project’s impact on local wetlands and wild rice habitats. As a part of the proposal, Huber Mill would drain 28.5 acres of wetland to allow a railway to be installed.
“The whole landscape will be changed,” said Annie Humphrey, a Leech Lake member working for Honor the Earth. “That’s why I’m here and that’s why I believe the Huber Mill is so dangerous.”
These wetlands, which lie in the Mississippi watershed and connect to wild rice beds nearby, are under federal and state protection and require a permit from the Army Corps of Engineers before they can be drained and developed.
In addition to appealing the EAW, an effort undertaken by the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, opposition to the Huber Mill is also urging people to submit comments to ask the Corps to deny the permit.
“They’ve identified dozens of alternative sites,” Konopacky said. “If there are alternatives to this, if we don’t have to fill wetlands in order to achieve the purposes of a project, then (the law states) you’re not allowed to do it.”
Concerns were also raised about the logging practices the mill would use, and the volume of trees that it would harvest.
In the EAW, Huber Mill stated it would collect an estimated 400,000 cords of wood, mostly aspen, from the surrounding area. The total collection limit set by the DNR in 2019 was 870,000 cords for the entire state. Across the state, including private land, the limit averages between 2 million and 3 million cords each year.
Humphrey shared how she isn’t against logging as an industry, but wants it to be sustainable. This is one reason she’s looking at how to support alternatives to large-scale industrial lumber mills.
“We can say no Huber Mill … but we need to also have answers, we need to find alternatives,” Humphrey said. “There are other ways we can do things, we don’t need this.”
Humphrey brought attention to one member of the audience who owned his own lumber mill. His method involves going out to handpick each tree to take down, rather than clear-cutting an entire area.
“He doesn’t go and cut everything down,” Humphrey said. “That’s the way we should be logging our forests.”
Legal challenges and action
There’s another challenge being brought against Huber Mill that argues it hasn’t gone through the proper steps required involving consultation with local tribal governments.
“It would violate treaty law and other federal laws that state you need the prior pre-informed consent of tribes with rights in this area,” Konopacky said.
The Huber Mill, in addition to being just one mile away from the Leech Lake Nation, is on 1855 Treaty land where Indigenous people have a right to hunt, gather and fish.
The Huber Mill will destroy Mother Nature, which is sacred to my family. I do not consent to the destruction of Mother Nature and my traditions.
The Leech Lake Band, however, was not informed of the project for any consultation, and instead found out about the proposal through a press release.
“There was no meaningful consultation before decisions started being made, and that’s plainly illegal,” Konopacky said.
Honor the Earth asked attendees to sign postcards addressed to both Gov. Tim Walz and their tribal chairs, if they had one. They were also encouraged to share testimony through affidavits that could be notarized before they left.
“This treaty law is what we’ve got right now,” Humphrey said. “We will keep standing and pushing, we will exhaust every avenue.”
Some even presented their affidavits to the audience, including 14-year-old Alli Fairbanks of Leech Lake who shared the importance of her cultural traditions and heritage including gathering in the forests and wetlands near the reservation.
“The Huber Mill will destroy Mother Nature, which is sacred to my family,” Fairbanks said. “I do not consent to the destruction of Mother Nature and my traditions.”
Those at the event also took time to brainstorm different strategies to mobilize and oppose the construction of the mill, looking back to other successful campaigns against other projects.
“The tribes, if they stand together in this state, they stand to have a clean aquifer, clean water and clean air,” said Brenda Whitebird, who is originally from the Ojibwe tribe of Bad River, Wis., but now lives in Ponemah.
The Bemidji event was one of several organized by Humphrey and Honor the Earth in recent days. Meetings were also held in Walker, Cass Lake and Grand Rapids.
Honor the Earth’s next steps involve continuing to assist Leech Lake Nation's appeal of the EAW and fighting the different permits that Huber Mill is seeking. The organization is also hoping to raise awareness and get more people involved in writing letters, comments and more.
“That’s where the battle is,” Whitebird said, “pen and paper.”
This story was updated at 9:12 a.m. May 2 to correct the 2019 collect limit for timber cords set by the DNR and to clarify the average yearly total timber cord collection limit. It was originally posted at 10:46 a.m. April 25.