LaDuke: Thoughts on and around the Road

"Life is short, ends in a moment, and we don’t think much about it some days. ... It’s a scenic highway, and we should keep it that way, go a bit slower, and enjoy life."

Winona LaDuke
Winona LaDuke

A couple of weeks ago, I lost a prized dog on Highway 34, the Road. That’s not a surprise, people go fast on the Road, we are all in a big hurry. And, of course, there’s the opportunity to blast by a slowpoke on a straight away, and that’s about where Little Cloud got hit.

Life is short, ends in a moment, and we don’t think much about it some days. The Road itself is part of the problem; so is our fast pace. It’s a scenic highway, and we should keep it that way, go a bit slower, and enjoy life.

There are lessons every day. The Smokey Hills is the most biodiverse place in Minnesota. This is where the wild things are. And that’s what we want to keep. Take a pause and think about it. The headwaters to both the Red River and the Mississippi begin here, and there are wild things that live here. That’s to say, that there are more species of trees, plants and animals in the Smokey Hills than anywhere else in Minnesota. And Shell Lake is the headwaters to the Shell River, where the largest inland freshwater mussel population lives. It’s all the same story. And biodiversity needs trees and clean water.

The swans are the last ones to leave and the first to return. That seems to be the way, and we who live up north can see this beauty. The natural world is a source of beauty and wonder but it also provides what economists call “essential services.” Jungles, forests and savannahs act as buffers against infectious diseases, keeping the wild things and the humans separate. Wetlands filter water and are full of medicines — the Anishinaabe word is muskeg … the place where the medicines are found. Forests breathe life and channel moisture into our streams, lakes and prairies. The wellbeing of the natural world is part of our responsibility and privilege. That’s to say that for thousands of years, Anishinaabe people and our relatives created maple sugaring areas, burned prairies and woodlands for medicinal plants and blueberries, and curated forests and ecosystems for all of our relatives, whether they had wings, fins, roots or paws.

The Indigenous caretaking responsibility was just recognized at a gathering in Montreal, where 196 governments from around the world committed to restore 30% of the Earth's biodiversity – in water and land by 2030. Not only is it the right thing to do, but it’s also the way to avert some of the wrath of ecological destruction.


So here we are in the Smokey Hills. The Minnesota Department of Transportation is cutting a first round of trees on the highway this week, hoping to cut a wide corridor along that highway, under the pretext that this will reduce deer/car accidents. That’s not true. There’s no direct link between width of highway and the deer. It’s about speed. Then there’s the problem of the invasives and the wind tunnel that gets created by the large highway path. The wind goes through the path of least resistance, that’s the rule, and the wind tunnel damages more trees. Just take a ride on Highway 2 by the Leech Lake reservation and Chippewa National Forest to see that: There’s wind damage all along that corridor and the powerlines and pipelines. That’s the handprint of the right-of-ways.

The Minnesota DOT is pushing ahead with their cuts. A letter from the 1855 Treaty Authority noted that it is not clear what a 50% removal of trees in the Smokey Hills will do to the remaining trees, how this might change the unique biodiversity of this forest, and the extent of short-term and permanent habitat loss for animals.

Then there’s the fact that if you cut back a bit from the Scenic Highway, you will just find clearcuts. That’s to say, that while we have been watching that road and driving fast, the DNR, buttressed by policies of the Department of Agriculture that allow widespread forests to potatoes transition, means that the wild things are headed for the Smokey Hills, because everything else is getting clearcut or turned into a potato field. Indeed, the loss of forests in Becker County illustrates a lack of any forethought. I remember my friend Mike Wiggins was once testifying at a hearing on a mining project, listening to all the mining proponents talk. He said to me, “Seems like these guys don’t want to hang around for another thousand years or so.”

That’s how we, aka Anishinaabe, think. Been here for a long time, plan on staying. And, in the meantime, somebody must look out for the little things. Whether it’s my dog Little Cloud or maybe the frogs, otters, butterflies, and birds who live here. My proposal: Quit with all the cutting, slow down a bit. Enjoy the scenic highway. Maybe one day, we will be cool and get ourselves an electric train that goes on that corridor six times a day, and we can all stress out a lot less, grab our coffee, get dropped off at Toad Lake, Height of Land, Snellman junction, Osage or somewhere else cool. And let’s solve problems, not make more.

Winona LaDuke is executive director, Honor the Earth, and an Ojibwe writer and economist on Minnesota’s White Earth Reservation. She is also owner of Winona's Hemp and a regular contributor to Forum News Service.

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