Opinion | In Maine, a return of tribal land shows how conservation can work best

The Mattamiscontis stream in central Maine flows through land that has been in Penobscot stewardship since the late 1980s. The tiers of stone placed in the river are a method of fishery restoration. (Tristan Spinski for The Washington Post)

PENOBSCOT COUNTY, Maine — On a recent morning at the Penobscot Nation headquarters, moose mating rituals dominated the office banter: the wacky way a lovesick moose had stumbled around someone’s pickup truck, the grunts a bull moose made when he heard a hunter’s low moan — an imitation of a female mating call. “I don’t care anymore how ridiculous I sound to people,” said Chuck Loring, who heads the tribe’s department of natural resources. “What matters is how I sound to a moose.” He had just shot a bull with a 40-inch antler span. Outside, a stretched-out hide — the future head of a ceremonial drum — was drying in the sun.

The Penobscot Nation’s record of caring for nature while still using it — hunting moose and duck while keeping their populations steady, selectively harvesting timber to preserve forests and restoring rivers to support fisheries — inspired an effort to return a 31,000-acre tract of forested land to tribal ownership. Late last year, the Trust for Public Land, a conservation group, bought the parcel from an industrial timber company, and today it announced it will give the land to the tribe once it pays off $32 million in loans. Called Wáhsehtəkʷ by the Penobscot, which means east branch of the river (and is pronounced WAH-seh-teg), it’s the largest contiguous tract that the tribe will have acquired in more than four decades.


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The land is close to Mount Katahdin, sacred in Penobscot tradition, and to an 87,000-acre national monument created in 2016 in the North Woods of Maine. It contains 53 miles of streams in the watershed of the Penobscot River, which has been for the tribe a central highway and a source of food and water.

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The transfer is part of a movement to return lands to Indigenous stewardship and work with tribal communities to protect biodiversity. The hope is both to restore justice for tribes that were long ago stripped of their ancestral homelands and to learn from long-standing Indigenous practices new ways to save a beleaguered planet. The pending land return in Maine, or “rematriation” as some Indigenous people call it, stands out because of its scale — many previous land returns in the eastern United States have been on the order of hundreds of acres — and because the Penobscot will decide how the land will be managed.

This is a significant change. For most of the past two centuries, Western conservationists have largely ignored Indigenous people’s knowledge of landscapes and wildlife, along with tribes’ historic claims to the land. But that is no longer tenable. Worldwide, Indigenous-managed lands host 80 percent of the world’s biodiversity, by some estimates, and encompass much of the world’s remaining intact forests, savannas and marshes. If environmentalists and political leaders hope to conserve more natural landscapes, including carbon sinks and critical buffer ecosystems such as wetlands that can protect against the harms of climate change, collaboration with tribal nation leaders is critical.

Modern environmentalism has been deprived of Indigenous knowledge, in part, because it has seen nature as something apart from humans. Early thinkers hold some responsibility for this. John Muir, long lauded as the father of the national parks, believed that natural landscapes needed to be stripped of the Native Americans who lived on them to create his ideal of pristine wilderness. In the Muir tradition, the U.S. government drove tribal people out of areas that today are considered America’s most beloved landscapes — Yellowstone, Yosemite, the Everglades — a history documented by David Treuer, an Ojibwe writer.

The federal government created the National Bison Range in 1908 by evicting tribal members from more than 18,000 acres of the Flathead Indian Reservation — ignoring century-old practices for keeping up the bison herd. Only recently has the government returned the land to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, whose successful traditional methods for maintaining the herd are featured in a forthcoming ABC documentary.

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When Henry David Thoreau — someone I long admired for his quest to “live deliberately” — traveled to the Maine woods in the 19th century, he distinguished between “scientific men” and Indian guides, even as he acknowledged the latter’s navigational expertise. It’s laughable now to think that communities that had inhabited a place for centuries, gaining intimate knowledge of the natural features, flora and fauna and passing down that knowledge across generations, could have less to offer scientifically than settlers encountering those lands for the first time. Yet it was only last year that the U.S. government formally recognized how much tribes can contribute to ecological knowledge of their ancestors’ landscapes.

Meanwhile, traditional tribal practices have often proved the most sustainable way to manage natural resources. Prescribed burns ­­in forests carried out by generations of­­­ Native Americans in the Klamath Mountains in California, for instance, have prevented destructive wildfires better than European settlers’ methods, which suppressed fire and let forests grow too dense. More wildland managers and scientists in North America now recognize the need for prescribed burns, but they still are not being carried out enough to prevent catastrophic fires.

For decades, tribal members in Maine advocated bringing down Penobscot River dams that once powered saw and paper mills to restore an Atlantic salmon fishery. The Penobscot method of timber harvesting, which leaves 75- to 100-foot buffers of trees around rivers and streams, creates ideal conditions for salmon. Salmon like to spawn upriver in shady pools, created by allowing the forest at a river’s edge to thicken and birch trees to fall into it. One afternoon in late October, I watched Penobscot tribal members and scientists from Maine’s department of marine resources release into the Penobscot watershed 80 adult salmon that the state agency had raised in a hatchery, in the hope that they would spawn in such pools and help restore the historic salmon population.

Some evidence suggests that, globally, the track record for Indigenous management of wildlife is at least as good as that of formal conservation. Researchers have shown, for instance, that Indigenous-managed lands in Canada, Australia and Brazil contain biodiversity equivalent to that of areas designated for conservation.

But perfect alignment between tribes and environmental groups doesn’t always happen. The economic challenges that many tribes face — and their efforts to acquire land to reclaim sovereignty — often force tough decisions about development, gambling and heavy industry. Some tribal nations have greenlighted oil and gas drilling. The Penobscot have allied with conservationists to oppose a proposed zinc mine in northern Maine because of its likely harm to fisheries. But several tribal members expressed to me their misgivings about wind farms, which most environmentalists see as essential to combat climate change.

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Penobscot leaders have varying visions about how they might one day develop the land that is now being returned to them. Some imagine using it to adapt to sea-level rise — by building housing or growing food; others envision ecotourism lodges or a cultural center that could be accessed by the general public. In the near term, tribal leaders aim to make it accessible to hikers and hunters with permits and to offer public access to the national monument via an old logging road.

In other parts of North America, co-management of conservation areas is becoming more common. Canada has a program that invests in “Indigenous Guardians,” members of First Nations who steward natural resources and public lands. In the United States, in recent years, the National Park Service and other federal agencies under the leadership of Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Native American Cabinet member, have collaborated more with tribes on conservation. But returns of land to tribal jurisdiction have largely arisen from legal settlements that acknowledge historic treaty violations and injustices — not from a recognition of the central role that tribes could play in preserving nature.

Groups such as the Trust for Public Land and the Nature Conservancy are brokering more land returns and collaborating with tribes to manage ecologically important landscapes. But more private landowners, philanthropists, nonprofit groups and governments should mimic the efforts in Maine — and more scientists and conservation agencies should document the outcomes for biodiversity and communities.

Conservation has always been about people, even when the people were not visible. Environmental movements might have better protected nature if they had long sought to conserve cultures and communities along with land. Earning the trust now of people who have inherited wisdom for living in balance with nature will give conservation a fighting chance on a warming planet. It might also offer a reprieve from focusing on the dire future to reach for solutions that lie deep in the past.

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