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Keith Karnes

Karnes and community members plant local orchards in the reservation villages. As a kid, Keith Karnes loved walking in the woods near his home in Sauk Centre, Minnesota. Heading out after breakfast, he could spend the whole day exploring. Years later, this affinity for being outdoors, especially in forests, led Karnes to Wisconsin’s Stevens Point, where he graduated with a degree in Forestry in 2003. In 2006, Karnes began working for the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, where he now serves as Forestry Director, blending the best available science with traditional ecological knowledge to make things work in today’s world. In 2017, the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council appointed Karnes to the Minnesota Forest Resources Council as the tribal affairs representative. A straight-shooter who values action through collaboration, Karnes says, “I’m on [the Council] to make a difference… My personal nature is go big or go home.” 

Today, Karnes’ own forestry philosophy is deeply tied to the Leech Lake Band’s tribal ideology, which holds resiliency, adaptability, biodiversity, and balance as key tenets. As Karnes will readily admit, these ideas didn’t always form the basis for his own understanding of forestry. When Karnes first joined the Leech Lake Division of Resource Management, his coworkers called him the timber beast. “I put up a lot of timber those first 8 years,” Karnes says. “Then I started looking at how I was doing it and I started thinking about the disagreements with tribal ideology.” Since those early days, Karnes’ understanding of forestry, and his role, has changed dramatically, in large part due to conversations with other members of the Leech Lake forestry team. “I had to change how I thought, how I was taught to cut,” Karnes acknowledges.  

Now as Forestry Director, Karnes fully embraces tribal ideology, bringing a more rounded approach to his work. “Tribes as a whole, they look at the forest much more holistically,” Karnes says. During a presentation at the Sustainable Forests Education Cooperative’s summit in 2020, Karnes emphasized that traditional Indigenous homelands are still homelands today, and should be managed accordingly. “[Band members] look at super canopy trees as elders that they are related to. Stories have come down through the generations about how tribal members – they don’t live in the forest. They are the forest. They are the wildlife. These are all one family and they’re all together. Everything has its part.” 

Approaching forestry with this holistic understanding, Karnes often finds himself called to ask hard questions. “I say my opinions, I speak my onions,” Karnes says. Yet, he recognizes the deep value in building relationships and being “honest and earnest” with other departments and agencies as he works to get things done. Karnes knows this approach can work, too: after years of dedicated effort by Karnes and others, the relationship between the Leech Lake Division of Resource Management and the Chippewa National Forest, established on the Leech Lake Reservation in 1908, is seen as a model for tribal-federal relations in the Great Lakes region. In 2007, Karnes was recognized for his outstanding work collaborating with the Chippewa National Forest with an award for “Protecting Ecosystems Across Boundaries.” In 2020, Karnes was again commended for his leadership and ability to collaborate, receiving the Earle R. Wilcox Award for Individual Achievement for his work promoting sustainable forest management, protecting culturally significant species and advocating for tribal sovereignty and tribal forest resource interests. 

As the tribal affairs representative on the Council, and the only Council member not appointed by the Governor, Karnes sees his role as a unique one. “‘You’re not afraid to speak up or announce the 800-pound gorilla in the room,’” Karnes recalls being told by the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council when they appointed him to the Council. “[They] wanted me to speak up and be a voice and be heard.” As a Council member, Karnes is particularly excited about pursuing and supporting projects which operate on a landscape scale. One day, Karnes would love to see the creation of digital maps which encompass all of Minnesota’s forested lands – tribal, state, federal and private. “Forestry doesn’t just know one stand,” Karnes says. “[We need to think about] how everything is going to affect everything else. All of this needs to be considered.” As the threat of climate change increasingly orients discussions towards biodiversity and sustainability, Karnes also hopes that the Council and other decision-makers will turn to the Leech Lake Band and other tribes for guidance. “The tribes have been saying to manage for diversity for years,” Karnes says. “They’ve been here a long time and have a lot of ties. People need to listen.” 

To connect with Council member Keith Karnes, contact him at The Minnesota Forest Resources Council exists to support and advocate for Minnesotans like you! Please join us for our bimonthly public meetings, with Zoom links available via our calendar. We hope to see you there. 

Karnes holding achievement award plaque.
Karnes accepts the Earle R. Wilcox Award for Individual Achievement for his work promoting sustainable forest management, protecting culturally significant species and advocating for tribal sovereignty and tribal forest resource interests. 
A group poses in front of a large evergreen tree on a trailer.
“The Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe was asked to provide a tree for the National Museum of the American Indian-Smithsonian, in our nation’s capital.” (From the Leech Lake Band’s Division of Resource Management’s 
website, “Leech Lake DRM Sends Christmas Tree to Smithsonian.”) 
An image of Karnes taken during a Zoom meeting. Karnes speaking during one of the Council’s 2020 Zoom meetings. 
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