Pulp Friction

The Star Tribune has long prided itself on its sensitivity to issues involving native people. For nearly a decade, the Strib was one of just six dailies nationwide that refused to print the names of sports teams like Redskins and Braves so as not to offend its Indian readers. While that particular policy was recently abandoned, the Strib remains one of the country's more scrupulously politically correct newspapers.

But there is editorial policy. Then there is business.

The gulf between the two became evident last month after Steve Fobister, the deputy chief of the Grassy Narrows Anishinabe Nation in Ontario, fired off a letter to top honchos at the Strib and its Sacramento-based parent, the McClatchey Company.

In the October 9 missive, Fobister simply asked for a face-to-face meeting with the newspaper executives to discuss the damaging effects of intensive clear-cutting in the Whiskey Jack Forest. The Whiskey Jack has long been a significant source of paper pulp for the Montreal-based logging giant Abitibi-Consolidated, from which the Strib purchases much of its newsprint.

The Whiskey Jack is not technically part of the Grassy Narrows 14-square-mile reserve. But it lies within what members of the band refer to as their "traditional use area," a mix of lake country and boreal forest where they have historically hunted, trapped, gathered berries, and fished. "As a purchaser [of paper]," Fobister wrote to McClatchey, "you are contributing to the further devastation of our culture."

That Fobister might have expected some sort of response was not unreasonable. After all, the Sacramento Bee--McClatchey's flagship paper--published a lengthy story in April examining the harm done by continued clear-cutting in the area. But, according to Fobister, neither McClatchey CEO Gary Pruitt nor Strib publisher J. Keith Moyer have responded to his request for a meeting. "We've had no word," Fobister sighs, "other than what has been communicated in the media."

McClatchey's "communication" came in a short story that ran in the Bee on October 17. "We understand that they [Abitibi executives] have been meeting with the tribe," Pruitt said in a statement. "We believe Abitibi is making a concerted, good faith effort to identify the tribe's concerns and find mutually acceptable ways of resolving them." (The Strib has yet to run a word on the controversy.)

Ben Taylor, the Strib's vice president for communication, adds that complaints about Abitibi's logging practices are best addressed in Canada. "This is not a McClatchy issue," contends Taylor. Taylor points out that virtually all newsprint manufacturing involves clear-cutting, and that Abitibi's practices conform to industry norms. Marc Osborne, a spokesman for Abitibi, says the company cuts an average of just one percent of the 3.9 million-acre Whiskey Jack Forest annually.

That may be true, responds Don Sullivan, the director of the Boreal Forest Network, a Winnipeg-based environmental group. But, Sullivan says, the Whiskey Jack Forest is extremely delicate. In most places, there is less than a foot of topsoil, which means that trees take up to 60 years to mature. Further, soil damage after clear-cutting makes replanting difficult.

In addition, Sullivan says, the logging may be contributing to another persistent problem for the 800 members of the Grassy Narrows band: mercury poisoning. Nearly 30 years ago, a researcher from Japan discovered unusually high incidences of mercury among the people of the reserve. The cause was a paper mill in Dryden, Ontario, that dumped tons of mercury into the English River, from which many Grassy Narrows residents consume fish.

Dumping has been discontinued, but increased erosion from logging has allowed naturally occurring methyl mercury from the soil to enter the watershed. This summer, Japanese researchers returned to Grassy Narrows; deputy chief Fobister says researchers told him that they found seriously elevated levels of mercury among band members. (Fobister was recently diagnosed with ALS, a disease that has been linked to mercury exposure.)

Since last December, band members and environmental activists have manned a permanent blockade on the main logging roads leading into the Whiskey Jack. Roving blockades have kept loggers out of other parts of the forest. The gambit led to the meeting last month between Anishinabe leaders and Abitibi executives. Unfortunately, according to Fobister, not much came of the sit-down, as the band's complaints are once again being passed back and fourth between the logging company, the federal government, and the provincial government.

And that's why the band is going to McClatchey. Says Sullivan: "We want to give the Star Tribune a picture of what's happening in Grassy Narrows and to see exactly what their newsprint is contributing to in terms of the social and economic degradation of the community."

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