Photo of Fond du Lac Natural Resources Building

Protecting the Land for Coming Generations

Protecting the Land for Coming Generations: A Conversation with Fond du Lac Band Environmental Program Manager and Native Nation Rebuilder Wayne Dupuis

The Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa is leading the way in the fight for environmental health and justice. Wayne Dupuis, a Cohort 3 Native Nation Rebuilder, is Fond du Lac’s Environmental Program Manager and is working to promote sustainability, reduce Fond du Lac’s energy consumption, and protect the land for future generations.

Wayne is an enrolled member of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, and he’s lived on the Fond du Lac Reservation with his wife (who’s enrolled at Turtle Mountain) for many years. Wayne comes from a large extended family. Outside of his work as Environmental Program Manager, he’s an avid gardener and is passionate about raising awareness about the impact that his Tribe’s current blood quantum requirements will have on future enrollment numbers. “At the end of the Native Nation Rebuilders program, I took on this project to ensure that we’re fully aware of our population trends and what we need to do to counter them,” Wayne explains.

Wayne’s work spans a wide range of issue areas related to environmental protection—from monitoring air and water quality to supervising Fond du Lac’s Tribal Historic Preservation Office (THPO), Wayne wears several hats. He manages a staff of 14 and feels fortunate to have “many good scientists” on his team. The Fond du Lac Band is setting an example for sustainability across the region, state, and nation through its numerous cutting-edge environmental projects.

Photo of Fond du Lac Natural Resources Building

Fond du Lac Natural Resources Building

Declaring Fond du Lac Reservation a Class I Airshed

Fond du Lac is improving air quality by working toward declaring its reservation as a Class I Airshed. What does it mean for an area to be a Class I Airshed? Essentially, the designated area conforms to the highest level of air quality and visibility protection levels as specified by the Clean Air Act of 1963. National parks (over 6,000 acres) and national wilderness areas (over 5,000 acres) are currently Class I Airsheds, in addition to six Indian reservations.

Fond du Lac is working to become the seventh Indian reservation with a Class I Airshed designation, which will beneficially impact air quality not just on Tribal lands but across northeastern Minnesota. Wayne explains, “Industry is our neighbor here, but they’re emitting almost to the top of the scale. In fact, they’re going over in some respects. So us being a Class I Airshed is a threat to their ability to pollute. In the past, Class I Air pertained to a 60-mile circumference. But now it pertains to whatever is going to impact your air—it doesn’t matter what the distance is. So, we’re declaring that we’re at the table when it comes to air quality in our region. We would be the first here to do so.”

Addressing Environmental Justice Issues Impacting Tribal Members Living in Duluth

The Fond du Lac Reservation is located just 20 miles from the city of the city of Duluth, and the Tribe also holds land within city boundaries. Unfortunately, many Tribal members living in Duluth are subjected to environmental racism due to the trajectory of harmful pollutants from area plants and refineries. According to Wayne, “Duluth is a long city, but it rises abruptly on the hill. Most of the low-income people, including our Tribal members, live on the hillside. You know how it is when air is coming from the east—it comes and hits the hillside. We have the refinery over in Wisconsin, the cement plant that emits lots of pollutants, and all of the boats and railroads that are burning diesel. And the coal yards over there. So all of that stuff gets blown here.”

Wayne says that the average lifespan of residents living on Duluth’s central hillside is ten years lower than that of Duluth’s total population. Fond du Lac’s Environmental Program advocates for Tribal members living both on- and off-reservation, and Wayne and his team have raised concerns about the environmental injustice taking place in Duluth with both the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. The process is still early on, and Fond du Lac hopes that both entities will take action.

Raising Pollution Concerns Related to Proposed Area Mines

Citizens of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa depend on the health of the land—both reservation land and ceded treaty lands—for their livelihood and survival. The Fond du Lac Environmental Program recognizes this important relationship and also sees the value of clean waterways and wetlands for all Minnesotans. PolyMet Mining plans to construct a large open pit mine (known as the “NorthMet Project”) on Anishinaabe treaty lands to obtain metals embedded in sulfide-containing rocks. The mine is currently in the permitting stage, but Wayne and his team at the Fond du Lac Environmental Program were among the first to raise concerns about the potential for the mine to leach metals and other pollutants into area waterways. As a result of Tribal concerns, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) ruled that PolyMet’s initial Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) was inadequate. While the project has since cleared the EIS hurdle, Wayne and his team plan to continue raising awareness about the mine’s potential to cause irreparable environmental damage: “We live in an area that has 10% of the world’s fresh water, and we’re concerned about what they say is going to happen. We’re not convinced. It’s a foreign corporation. We didn’t make treaties with foreign corporations.”

Wayne is especially worried about the potential impact that the mine could have on the health of wild rice beds in northern Minnesota. He notes that wild rice has declined by 90% across the North American continent, and the decline poses a direct threat to the health of future generations of Anishinaabe. Wayne explains, “Wild rice is the reason that we’re here. It’s in our prophecies. I’ve seen a diminishment over my lifetime. I’ve riced since I was 13 years old, and I’ve been part of ricing since I could walk.” Fond du Lac’s Environmental Program is taking steps to protect what’s left of wild rice habitat by participating in a collaborative project with Tribes across Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan. The member Tribes have established a database to share and store information on wild rice densities across the three-state area.

Creating a Net-Zero HUD Home Prototype

Low-income people spend a high percentage of their monthly income on energy costs. Wayne and the Fond du Lac Environmental Program plan to remediate this issue for their low-income Tribal members and others by developing a net-zero home prototype that the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) can use when building low-income housing. A net-zero home is a regular grid home that produces just as much or more energy than it consumes throughout the year through both renewable energy and energy-efficient design. The Fond du Lac Environmental Program hopes to have the prototype design finished by fall of 2018.

Reducing Tribal Energy Consumption as a Kyoto Accord Signatory

Back in 2007, the Fond du Lac Reservation Business Committee passed a resolution to abide by the Kyoto Protocol, an agreement to curb greenhouse gas emissions, and pledged to convert 20% of its consumed energy to renewables by 2020. The Tribe has made great strides toward accomplishing this goal, in addition to reducing its overall energy consumption. The Fond du Lac Environmental Program has spearheaded the effort. For example, the program performed an energy audit on all Tribal buildings (including examining energy bills) to determine the Tribe’s baseline energy consumption and possible ways to cut back. In addition to incorporating energy reduction mechanisms into existing infrastructure, Fond du Lac has pledged to put energy efficiency and renewable energy technology into all new construction. The Fond du Lac Resources Management Building is LEED Certified (the most commonly used green building certification in the world) and features 10.5 kW of solar, south facing windows, and a green roof, among other features.

In addition, the Tribe has installed a megawatt of solar photovoltaic (PV) cells near its casino. Minnesota Power, a northeastern Minnesota utility company, was in the midst of a settlement regarding pollution discharge and awarded Fond du Lac funding for a renewable energy project. Wayne Dupuis suggested using the funding to install solar panels, and the utility agreed. Overall, the Tribe has made great strides toward cutting its energy consumption and increasingly relying upon renewables for its energy generation. It plans to continue this effort into the future. “As a Tribe, we’ve reduced our energy consumption by 50% from our starting baseline,” Wayne explains.

Photo of Fond du Lac Solar Field

Fond du Lac Solar Field

St. Louis River Ecosystem Services Valuation

The St. Louis River, which begins on the Iron Range in northern Minnesota, forms both the northern and eastern boundary of the Fond du Lac Reservation. This portion of the river is downstream from much of the region’s current and proposed mining activities, meaning that sulfide waste flows toward Fond du Lac. As mentioned previously, Fond du Lac members maintain the right to hunt, fish, and gather on ceded lands, and they’re concerned that the pollution of the St. Louis River diminishes these treaty rights.

Wayne notes, “Even though we ceded these lands, we retain the right to hunt, fish, and gather—otherwise known as usufructuary rights. And our usufructuary rights are being diminished. …Every time [a] mine moves an inch, it’s a diminishment of our usufructuary rights. Every time a road goes in, it’s a diminishment. And there’s never been an accounting for that.” The Tribe recently completed an ecosystem services valuation study of the St. Louis River, meaning an estimate of the monetary value that the river ecosystem provides to the area. The valuation study determined that the St. Louis River watershed brings a value of up to $14 billion in benefits to the region each year with a total asset value of up to $687 billion. The Fond du Lac Environmental Program hopes to use its study as leverage as it seeks a seat at the table for negotiations surrounding proposed projects with the potential to impact the local ecosystem. “The value that [a river] brings to a region is eye opening,” Wayne asserts. “People just don’t realize it.”

Looking Ahead to the Future

Wayne Dupuis not only brings an awareness of the need to improve the environment in the short-term to his work, but he also instills a genuine care about the health of future generations into his role as Environmental Program Manager. In the coming year, he hopes to set Fond du Lac on a path toward energy sovereignty: “Energy is really going to determine how we interact with everybody. And we need to know and be strategic about what our energy sources are and how we relate to the world around us.” Wayne sees the importance of remaining accountable to future generations both through his work and in his personal life. He strives to make environmentally-conscious choices on a day-to-day basis. “It’s not only Fond du Lac, but me it’s me personally. That’s where it begins. It’s, ‘What am I going to do?’”