Special Sauce: The Detroit Sugarbush Project

National Wildlife Federation Partnership With Detroit Youth and Indigenous Leaders Yields Sweet Results

A unique partnership between the National Wildlife Federation, the city of Detroit, and local advocacy groups has created the nation’s largest urban sugarbush in sprawling Rouge Park, connecting youth in Detroit to Indigenous experts in the cultural tradition of making maple syrup.  “Sugarbush” refers to a group of sugar maple trees growing in the same area used to produce syrup or sugar.

Over the past two winters, Detroit area school children have gotten back to the land by tapping sugar maple trees in Rouge Park and then participating in a ceremonial boiling down of the sap. Making sugar from tree sap is a long-honored tradition that dates to the Anishinaanabe and Algonquin people who first inhabited the upper Midwest thousands of years ago. For young people accustomed to concrete and pavement, it’s often a first glimpse into the treasures of the forest.

“They came, shared stories, taught us the skills, and we’ve been holding down this work and building community around these sacred little patches of forests we have in Detroit,” said Antonio Cosme, NWF’s Senior Coordinator for Education and the leader of this project.  It’s a simple yet labor-intensive proposition, with some 40 gallons of tree sap needed to make one gallon of maple syrup.

Tapping Into Tradition

At nearly 1,200 acres, on the city’s far west side near Dearborn Heights, Rouge Park, is among the most extensive urban green spaces in the country—40 percent larger than New York’s famed Central Park. It’s home to extensive stands of healthy sugar maples, which thrive amid the cold winters and shaded ravines of the northern woodlands, 

The largest stand of sugar maples in the city of Detroit are found along the floodplains of the Stone Bridge Nature Trail, which winds throughout Rouge Park. 

The credit for the sugarbush initiative goes to Antonio Cosme, who leads NWF’s Detroit Leadership & Environmental Education Program (D-LEEP), along with the Native communities who have graciously shared their wisdom to inspire the future generation of environmental stewards

A self-described “urban Native educator and organizer,” Cosme first envisioned the project to build bonds in the spirit of environmental justice between the young people of Detroit, older Native populations, and local conservation organizations. A first step, he says, was asking permission from “urban Indigenous grandmothers” to begin tapping their sacred maples growing near the Rouge River. Other key individuals early in the process were Shakara Tyler of the Detroit Black Food Security Network and David Pitawanakwat from Wikewemikong First Nations Reserve

Engaging Outdoor Advocates

Partner groups were also brought in: Friends of the Rouge, the local watershed organization, and Black to the Land, a non-profit dedicated to getting families of color engaged in outdoor leadership. The NWF then generated a memorandum of understanding with the City of Detroit General Service Department, granting this coalition permission to camp on-site, tap maple trees, and boil the sap over a fire. 

Finally, the Detroit “Sugarbush Team” collaborated with the Sierra Club of Detroit and Detroit Outdoors to bring in Anishinaabe sugarmakers from Dynamite Hills Farm in the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. 

Volunteers camp on-site, tap maple trees, and boil the sap over a fire.
Volunteers camp on-site, tap maple trees, and boil the sap over a fire.

What followed, Cosme says, was a “Herculean effort among a small cadre of committed volunteers,” along with young people from the NWF’s DLEEP. Unfortunately, the inaugural Detroit sugarbush run was eclipsed by the Covid pandemic.

“We literally had to shut down the operation for two weeks toward the end, right in the midst of boiling down,” Cosme recalls. 

The operation has since engaged even more Tribal communities, including the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi who came to Detroit to offer teachings and perform a ceremony after its own sugarbush operation was shut down by the pandemic. Local Native nonprofits American Indian Health and Family Services and the Native American Indian Association have also participated.

Connecting Communities

“A primary point of this project is to engage young Detroiters in those late winter months in an activity that not only gets them physically active but also drives home important connections between the Indigenous and African-American communities,” says Cosme.

In addition to participating in the ceremonial sugarbush festivities, students were taught how to split logs with axes, wedges, and chainsaws and learned how to start a fire with steel, flint, and shkitogin—a soft “tinder fungus” that can hold a burning ember. They also learned to drill and tap maple trees, along with traditional Anishinaabe ecological knowledge and songs. 

Through D-LEEP and other efforts in Detroit, the National Wildlife Federation is cultivating environmental leadership in populations often excluded from the discussion. This work is doubly important as many communities of color have frequently found themselves on the front lines, first impacted by pollution, climate change, and other forms of environmental racism. 

With help of NWF staff, local teachers, and community partners, Detroit students and their families are now getting to experience nature with a focus on developing leadership skills, occupational prospects, and a broader connection with the outdoors. Plus, making maple syrup is a lot of fun and a good way to stay warm outside in winter.

“If we’re serious about protecting wildlife, communities, and habitat, we must engage with the next generation, especially young people of color,” says Mike Shriberg, NWF’s Great Lakes Regional Executive Director. “This unique project is a great example of how to authentically and powerfully engage.”

“The Detroit Sugarbush operation is making a difference in the lives of our young people while putting them in touch with Native American traditions,” says Cosme. “Seeing the excitement on their faces when they drill into a tree and the sap starts flowing makes me feel a lot better about the future.”