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Bringing back Oneida Lake

A restored Oneida Lake will provide recreational and cultural opportunities. Photo by USFWS.

A restored Oneida Lake will provide recreational and cultural opportunities. Photo by USFWS.

By Taylor Hensel and Trina Soyk
Minnesota-Wisconsin Ecological Services Field Office

Restoring resources lost to contamination is a primary goal of the Natural Resource Damage Assessment program. Especially important is restoring resources of cultural importance to Native American tribes. For the Oneida Nation in Wisconsin, regaining the use of Oneida Lake is a decades-old dream.

In the 1950s, hazardous chemicals known as polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, were released by paper companies into Wisconsin’s Fox River/Green Bay ecosystem. This had a profound impact on the water quality, native fish, wildlife and the local community. Oneida tribal members and citizens hunt, fish, and gather within streams, lakes and aquatic habitats that have been affected by PCBs in the ecosystem.

After a Natural Resource Damage Assessment was conducted on the Fox River/Green Bay, the trustee council determined there was work to be done to restore the land and water to a healthy state and once again provide the opportunities to use and enjoy these resources. The trustee council includes the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the State of Wisconsin, the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin and the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin.

At the forefront of the partnership and restoration was support of the tribes to enhance their cultural practices and restore the land. These efforts were key to ensuring that community members can hunt, fish, hike, collect medicinal plants and partake in the traditions that their cultures are built upon.

Oneida Indian Tribe of Wisconsin Trustee Council Representative Tehassi Hill said, “It was a great opportunity for myself and other past trustee council members, especially for Oneida, to be involved in the selecting of the projects and moving forward…. Oneida Lake has been on the wish list of tribal members for over 20 years since the traditional ways of collecting fish have been impacted by the PCB contamination.”

The Oneida Lake project focused on restoring 40 acres of aquatic habitat on the Oneida reservation to support a self-sustaining fishery, benefiting fish and wildlife and restoring recreational and cultural opportunities which the Oneida lost due to PCB-related injuries to fishery resources.

Oneida has now completed the design for Phase II of the fishery restoration project. This will expand the first phase, an 18-acre former sand pit, into a 30-acre sustainable fishery restoration project for the Oneida community. The final product will feature about 30 acres of open water, enhanced riparian habitat, meandering shorelines, accessible fishing piers, boat landings, fishing trails, fish camps, parking lots and southern and northern access roads.

The beliefs passed down by Native American elders to younger generations teach that when the land thrives, so does the culture. By placing a high priority on the environment and listening to tribal voices, the trustees are supporting natural and cultural resource restoration which will benefit many generations to come.

Last updated: October 10, 2018