Lawmakers dispute over bill to include a Penobscot tribal member on the Baxter State Park Authority
Maine tribal members couldn't vote when the Baxter State Park Authority was created in 1931. Now lawmakers are considering whether a tribal member should have a say in how the park is run. But the idea is encountering opposition from the state and from park stakeholders.
A bill sponsored by Democrat Ben Collings of Portland would expand the authority from three members to four by adding a tribal member chosen by the tribes. Currently, the director of the Maine Forest Service, the commissioner of the Inland, Fisheries and Wildlife and Maine's Attorney General serve on the board. They control the park’s management and execute its trust.
The authority is against the bill but is open to other suggestions on how to include Wabanaki voices in the park's management.
"I think I can speak for all the authority to say that we're absolutely open to, to gaining the trust of tribal members and looking for ways of, inclusion and in working with them," said Maine Forest Service Director Patty Cormier, the authority's chair. She said the board may discuss several options at its next meeting, including adding a tribal member to park staff.
But that might not be enough for supporters of the bill. During a public hearing on the bill in February, Collings said the bill would help right some of the historical wrongs against the tribes and ensure the park’s management is considered through an indigenous lens.
"How can we honor a good concept, Baxter State Park, it's great, right? It was great, it was wonderful what happened, but at the same time acknowledge the history and have some inclusion," Collings said.
Collings said the bill is in line with other efforts around the country to recognize indigenous peoples' history with the land. He pointed to a 2021 order from Secretary of the Interior of Deb Haaland directing her bureau to manage federal lands and waters in a way that honors tribes' legal and cultures interests.
The Legislature has added Wabanaki participation to the Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Advisory Council, the University of Maine System’s board of trustees and the Maine Criminal Justice Academy’s board of trustees since 2019.
Baxter State Park is unique: it is the home of Katahdin, a mountain of spiritual significance to tribes in Maine. Gov. Percival Baxter bought the land surrounding it over time and gifted them to the state.
But the tribes' relationship to the land has endured, said former Penobscot Nation Chief Barry Dana.
“Even though we weren't supposed to be doing ceremony there, because the park has its rules, I can tell you — don't tell anyone else. People were still going there, doing ceremonies, even though it was under the cover of night or just, you know, whatever, however, means they had to do it," Dana said.
For decades, Baxter State Park has been governed by a trust. Opponents say altering it in any way would violate Baxter’s wishes.
"We understand that the sponsors and supporters of LD 294 have worthy objectives, which we share. However for the Legislature to interfere with the operations of Baxter State Park would set a terrible precedent," said Friends of Baxter State Park member Ellen Baum. She said adding Wabanaki voices to the park's management is important. But she doesn't think the inclusion of a tribal member on the park's authority is the answer.
That drew this question from Democratic Sen. Craig Hickman of Winthrop.
"How do the friends reconcile the fact that this great gift of land is actually unceded land of the Wabanaki to begin with?" Hickman asked.
"You're asking the question that we're trying to get to — what is the way that we develop the right kind of working relationships and bring the Wabanaki and their interests into the park," Baum responded.
Attorney General Aaron Frey said if violated, the trust could revert to Baxter's heirs, who would then decide what to do with the park.
"This legislature doesn't have to continue to accept the terms of that trust. But that doesn't mean that it's within the power of the legislature to direct what happens to Baxter State Park at that point," Frey said.
Frey said previous attempts to add members to the authority have failed. But attempts to change the authority’s membership have never gone to court before, where Frey said this bill may end up should it pass.