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Tribal partner recognized for lengthy support of forest health projects

Connie Carpenter & Les Benedict hold his certificate of appreciation for his years of work with the agency.
On behalf of the USDA Forest Service Eastern Region Durham, New Hampshire, field office representative Connie Carpenter presents Les Benedict (right) of the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe with a well-earned certificate of appreciation for his many years of hard work and collaboration protecting forest health. USDA Forest Service photo by Nate Siegert.

WISCONSIN—On Earth Day, Regional Forester Gina Owens recognized a tribal partner for his decades-long work with the agency.

Les Benedict, a member of the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe, located in upstate New York, has been the assistant director of the tribe’s Environment Division for over 30 years. During this time, he has worked extensively with the Eastern Region’s Durham field office and other groups on a myriad of forest health-related issues and projects.

Durham State and Private Forestry field office representative Connie Carpenter presented the award to Benedict at Generations Park in Akwesasne in northern New York on behalf of Owens. Reading his award citation aloud, Carpenter said, “In a relationship built on respect, trust and shared passion for forest health, he has been a quintessential partner with the Durham field office. In addition to working with us on large-scale efforts in recent years, such as an integrated approach to managing emerald ash borer in forested areas and the largest emerald ash borer delimitation survey ever conducted on tribal land, he has always been extremely generous in sharing his time and knowledge with other stakeholders and tribes.”

His work with black ash began in 1991 to address concerns by the tribal community about the health and longevity of the black ash resource. “In addition to functioning as an ecologically foundational species in riparian areas and other forested, deciduous wetlands, black ash is highly valued by many Native American and First Nations tribes in eastern North America as a cultural, spiritual and economic resource used in ceremonial activities and centuries-old basketry traditions,” said Nate Siegert, a Forest Service entomologist and project collaborator in New Hampshire.

Black ash has multiple levels of significance to Benedict’s community. “First, it provides the raw material for use in basketry,” he said. “The basketry is a cultural practice that is part of our cultural identity. Basketry is an art form that expresses our culture, our history, and our thoughts. Basketry is also used to reflect our connection to natural resources. It is also used in ceremonies and other cultural practices. For example, we have a fish basket for hauling fish from the river, corn washing baskets which are used for washing corn. We have the wedding basket used in the marriage ceremony. There are other types of baskets for cultural purposes.”

Benedict co-authored the “Handbook for Black Ash: Preservation, Reforestation, and Regeneration” in 2000. Since the discovery of the ash-killing invasive insect emerald ash borer in local forests in 2002, he has continued his black ash conservation work, effectively bridging western science and traditional ecological knowledge while engaging diverse federal, state, and tribal partners across the region.

Even in semi-retirement, he continues to collaborate with the Forest Service on several projects, from providing input on the senior thesis of one of our students in the USDA Pathways Internship Program, River Mathieu, to assessing cultural impacts of the emerald ash borer invasion to Native Americans across Region 9.

People taking samples of logs in large workshop.
Les Benedict (center, blue jacket) and our multi-agency crew sampling logs as part of the emerald ash borer delimitation project. Federal, state and tribal partners from New York, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine worked together to assist the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe with this Durham field office-led effort. USDA Forest Service photo by Nate Siegert.

Benedict said of Mathieu’s work, “An important tool would be developed in identifying various areas of black ash. GIS [geographic information system] analysis and modeling is very helpful due to the vast area of land to consider. So, the utility of work that River is working on will streamline the process of identifying black ash sites. It is a game changer to use GIS and predictive analysis to look for black ash. It will be a good predictor of the location of black ash.”

The focus remains the same, to ensure that black ash continues to support the tribal community cultural practices, Benedict added.

“EAB is in our woods right now. We’re on the front end of the wave. It will probably peak out in three to four years. It’s self-limiting. Ash is its preferred host. There might be some residual stock that hangs around in low numbers. We’re using a combination of different methods to combat EAB. The focus of our program is improving stand health. These include pesticides, silvicultural methods and parasitoid wasps. That is a coordinated effort with the Forest Service, APHIS and with our tribe and others as well.”