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National nonprofit Trust for Public Land (TPL) has secured more than 31,000 acres in the Katahdin region of Maine with designs on returning the land to the Penobscot people who originally occupied it. 

Trust for Public Land bought the land in 2022 from timber management organization Conservation Resources, LLC, for $29.5 million. Now, the organization is hoping to raise $32 million in financing to pay back loans taken out in pursuit of the land and return the acreage to the Penobscot Nation.  At the same time, the deal will create “much needed access” to Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, per a TPL statement. 

Chuck Loring, the director of natural resources for the Penobscot, said the land’s accessibility was part of the land’s appeal to the tribe because it would grant them stewardship over entry to the national monument.  The arrangement could be a boon for towns nearby like Millinocket, which has relied on recreation dollars following the decline of its former paper mills.

“We certainly realize the value in the land south of the monument because we also own land by the north entrance to the monument,” Loring said. “Millinocket is trying to embrace this new recreational economy for them and giving us the opportunity to join in that development, and this supports that.” 

The Katahdin region is home to a number of streams, forests, and recreational trails that are “crucial” to both traditional foodways and economic production for tribal producers, said Dr. Ken Lucero,  TPL’s newly minted Tribal and Indigenous Lands Director and an enrolled member of the Pueblo of Zia. 

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Once the land-back transaction is completed, Penobscot Nation would add 31,000 acres to its existing 128,000 acres of land holdings. More than 4,000 acres of the property are designated wetlands, and the land encompasses 53 miles of streams, providing a habitat for a diverse array of fish and other wildlife, along with various plant species. 

That’s important for a number of reasons, Loring said. In addition to gaining access to the valuable wetlands and the diverse wildlife habitat, Penobscot Nation's sustainable timber industry is poised for significant expansion upon securing the land. The tribe will also have the authority to issue hunting and camping licenses for the area, bolstering their game warden service and creating employment opportunities for local guides. Loring underscored that these guides are mandated by tribal law for non-tribal moose hunters in the region.

“We don’t have a tax base, so we use those hunting permits to help fund our game warden service,” Loring said. “This is another source of employment for a tribal person. We’re pretty excited about it.” 

If completed, the land return would mark the largest landback transaction in the history of the United States, surpassing the deal last year that returned 28,000 acres of land to the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa Indians in northern Minnesota. The Bois Forte Band worked with the Indian Land Tenure Foundation, the Nature Conservancy, and Indian Land Community Capital to finance the land transfer through private capital. 

For TPL, the landback deal with Penobscot is a way to continue that work both on a local level and a national level, President and CEO Diane Regas said. The group acknowledged in a statement that Maine tribes — Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, Maliseet, Mi'kmaq, and Abenaki, collectively called “Wabanaki,” — steward only about 1% of their ancestral lands in the state. Land returns are an important part of correcting the ledger, according to Regas.  

"Trust for Public Land recognizes the profound and vital significance of returning land. It's not just an isolated act, but a deep acknowledgment and reaffirmation of a timeless bond, a rich history, and a promising future," Regas said in a statement. “As we collaborate with the Penobscot Nation, the National Park Service, and local communities, we are driven by a shared vision: to honor and help restore the rich tapestry of Wabanaki connection to land and ensure that Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument can be accessed and enjoyed by all."

Loring conceded funding the $32 million transfer would be “tricky,” since the tribe wants to preserve its sovereignty. Much of the funding will need to be private or philanthropic support, rather than utilizing mechanisms like conservation easements through grants by the US Forestry service, which could inhibit Penobscot’s self-governance on the reclaimed land. 

The goal is to make sure the people who best know how to take care of the land — the Native people who settled it — are the ones at the helm when it comes to revitalizing and developing the area, he added. 

“It’s a tricky project, for sure — this is a huge lift,” Loring said. “But I think it would speak a lot to Indian Country if we can pull this off.” 

TPL's Lucero said the group was already reaching out to other organizations, private donors, and corporate partners. 

“We're looking anywhere, in a lot of different directions,” Lucero said. “It's a momentous opportunity to be a part of this, but it's going to take a lot of partners and a lot of coordination to put this project together.”

Trust for Public Land has, over the years, worked with 100 tribes, returning more than 200,000 acres total to tribal stewardship or ownership. Lucero, who stepped into his role at TPL in late August, said the Penobscot deal could be a model for further work by his organization down the road. 

As a member of the Zia Pueblo with relations to the Cochiti Pueblo in New Mexico, Lucero said he wanted to share the “blessing” of having access to his ancestral lands with other tribes, and that Trust for Public Lands could provide an avenue for that.

“One of my big drives is that I want to see that for other tribes across the country, so I do want to see many more projects similar to this deal,” Lucero said. “There are a lot of tribes who are relocated or who don't have access to some of their tribes - and it's really important for them to have access, so I want to help tribes have that connection back and ensure they can do that on their own terms.” 

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About The Author
Chez Oxendine
Staff Writer
Chez Oxendine (Lumbee-Cheraw) is a staff writer for Tribal Business News. Based in Oklahoma, he focuses on broadband, Indigenous entrepreneurs, and federal policy. His journalism has been featured in Native News Online, Fort Gibson Times, Muskogee Phoenix, Baconian Magazine, and Oklahoma Magazine, among others.
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