Forestry on the President's Mind

by Laura Nelson

The University of Minnesota inaugurated Joan Gabel as its 17th president in September of this year. Gabel is the first woman to hold the highest administrative position at the U of M. “I am impressed with how much she already knows about forestry and natural resources, coming from a background of business and law,” said professor and department head Mike Kilgore, who served on the presidential search committee. Prior to coming to Minnesota, Gabel served as the provost of the University of South Carolina and served in university leadership positions in Missouri, Florida, and Georgia. “Coming from the South where forest products is a large industry, she knows about the importance of forestry and had done her homework about forestry in the Lakes States,” said Kilgore. Mike Dockry (second from left) and President Joan Gabel (middle) along with tribal partners, paddle along the Mississippi River in September 2019.

Other faculty have gotten time with the president. Assistant Professor Marcella Windmuller-Campione showed President Gabel a pine forest during the president’s visit to the Minnesota State Fair. It was not a real pine forest, however. Windmuller-Campione took part in making a 360 virtual reality video of a red pine stand at the Cloquet Forestry Center. “The president got to wear the VR goggles and take a tour of our red pine stands at Cloquet,” said Windmuller-Campione. The new commissioner of the Department of Natural Resources, and first woman in that position, Sarah Strommen, also got to watch the video. “It was amazing to have these two women in leadership get to learn more about forestry.”

Coming into the presidency, Gabel also demonstrated an understanding of the important role that tribes have in forestry and natural resource management. During the week leading up to the inauguration, the president participated in a meeting with tribal partners of two University Grand Challenge projects. They met on a sunny afternoon at the Mississippi River the day before the inauguration. Mike Dockry, member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation and an assistant professor in the Department of Forest Resources was at the meeting. “Part of the idea was to highlight the collaborative work we’re doing with tribes and also to have her interact with some of our tribal partners.”

The president paddled in a boat with four members of various tribes in a ceremonial meeting at the Mississippi River. Dockry got to sit right behind the president. “I talked with her about the work I’m doing with wild rice and how important it is to form truly collaborative, equal partnerships that create new knowledge and how that new knowledge can help us solve our social and environmental problems. Without the indigenous perspective, we are going to have a hard time.”

For indigenous people, place is very important, and the University is on Dakota territory, sacred land. “Getting the president on this river that connects history and future, people from different cultures from around the world, and the indigenous people of this land, that was an important event for us to immerse her, literally, in the Mississippi River, to show how all the human and cultural connectivity is important for the University of Minnesota,” said Dockry. “Forestry and natural resources are key elements of the University working with tribes, and the fact that the president understands natural resources and forestry and the tribal side is going to be really powerful moving forward,” said Dockry.