University of Minnesota considers transferring forestry center to Fond du Lac Band

It’s unclear when leaders at the school might consider approving a deal to transfer the 3,400-acre Cloquet Forestry Center to the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa.

A man walks inside a fenced-in area to check a piece of equipment.
Kyle Gill, forest manager and research coordinator at the Cloquet Forestry Center, returns to a weather instrument area to set up a precipitation gauge in 2019.
Bob King / 2019 File / Duluth News Tribune

CLOQUET — University of Minnesota administrators are pursuing a plan to transfer the Cloquet Forestry Center to the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa.

A Thursday, Feb. 9 meeting of a subcommittee of the U’s Board of Regents includes a report outlining the statewide school system’s intent to return the center to the Band “in recognition that the lands were originally a part of its promised treaty-based territory.” University system staff noted that, despite boilerplate language about the school’s intent to “dispose” of property, “this real estate transaction is a repatriation of land to its original caretakers.”

The land deal would ultimately need to be approved by the regents, Fond du Lac leaders, and, perhaps, an arm of the state government. The Thursday report outlining the proposal is an information item that does not call for a vote or even a discussion at the board’s meeting in Minneapolis this week.

It’s unclear if or when the proposal would be up for more formal consideration.

Fond du Lac leaders did not return News Tribune requests for comment before publication. University communications staff said they wouldn’t be able to provide “on-the-record content” on Wednesday, Feb. 8.


The approximately 3,400-acre center sits about three miles west of Cloquet, surrounded by Fond du Lac land. Federal legislation in the late 1800s carved out “unallotted” tribal lands to Cloquet-area lumber companies, according to a set of frequently asked questions produced by university staff, on the condition that the land would later be handed over to the university to turn into an educational forest.

The center was established in 1909. It’s been the university’s primary research and education forest since then. It offers conservation-minded classes on ecology, forest management, wildlife protection, and more.

Cloquet Forestry Center
Cloquet Forestry Center
Gary Meader / Duluth News Tribune

“The Administration has deemed that the repatriation of the property at the Cloquet Forestry Center (CFC) is in the best interest of the University’s mission as a positive step in repairing and strengthening the University’s relationship with the Fond du Lac Band and Indigenous communities throughout the state,” the report reads.

The plan has drawn skepticism from some university staff who worry about the center’s fate if or when the land changes hands.

Alan Ek, a professor emeritus at the school’s Department of Forest Resources, said he opposes the proposed land transfer. It’s obvious, he claimed in an email to the regents, that the proposed transfer signals the U’s intent to eliminate or “greatly diminish” the school’s forestry and wildlife programs.

“If lost,” Ek told regents of the center, “we run the risk of losing invaluable research on climate change and its impacts on forest and wildlife dynamics, as well as thousands of long term research records and the opportunity to build on these records to maintain forests and their richness for future generations,”

The report in the regents’ Thursday agenda indicates that U of M administrators will try to find other spots for teaching, research and outreach, and will ask Fond du Lac leaders to consider an agreement that would “facilitate some of the University’s ongoing research at the CFC for a period of time, if the Fond du Lac Band agrees that such research is consistent with the Fond du Lac Band's mission.”

But Ek said he is still wary, noting that he hasn’t seen any indication from the Band about what they’d do with the center if or when a deal is reached.


“One of the things you worry about is would there still be public access? Would there be any questions about sovereign immunity, since you’re really talking about an arrangement of the university with a sovereign nation when you get down to details?” he told the News Tribune. “There are real questions about how it might be organized and what might be possible.”

Joe Bowen is an award-winning reporter at the Duluth News Tribune. He covers schools and education across the Northland.

You can reach him at:
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