A canoe drifts silently across Kidney Pond in Baxter State Park with Katahdin in the background. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

The Penobscots have been coming to Katahdin to hunt, gather and pray for thousands of years, but they do not have a formal role in the management of Baxter State Park, the 210,000 acres of public trust land over which their sacred mountain looms.

“As Penobscot, we care about the management and decisions as much as the people who created the park,” said former chief Barry Dana. “As Penobscots, we had the authority here for 13,000 years and we proved what excellent management can be.”

A bill pending before the state Legislature attempts to remedy that absence by adding a tribal representative to the three-person Baxter State Park Authority. But some believe this would violate the strict conditions that Maine agreed to when it accepted the donated land in 1931.

“If enacted, (this bill) would likely violate the terms of the Baxter State Park trust as established by Gov. Percival Baxter,” said Attorney General Aaron Frey, who is himself a member of the park authority. “The state of Maine has a fiduciary responsibility to honor the terms.”

The debate comes as Maine is reexamining its relationship with the tribes.

Lawmakers from both political parties want to restore the tribes’ rights to self-government. State institutions are adding Wabanaki members to governing boards. Portland voters amended the city charter to acknowledge their community occupies “unceded territory” taken by force from the Wabanaki.


Conservation groups are caught in the middle, sympathetic to the tribes’ desire to have a formal voice in park management but wary of doing anything that might undermine the deeds of trust that protect Maine’s largest wilderness preserve. Many are hoping for a political compromise.

“We believe that the park will be stronger by incorporating Wabanaki perspectives,” said Ellen Baum, president of the Friends of Baxter State Park. “We believe that there are other, more meaningful avenues to bring Wabanaki voices into the management of Baxter State Park.”

Baxter began fulfilling his dream of preserving this wilderness area for the people of Maine in 1930, with the purchase of 5,960 acres, including Katahdin, Maine’s highest peak. He donated it a year later with the condition that it be kept forever wild. His last purchase, and donation, was in 1962.

Hikers look out over the Knife Edge from Baxter Peak on Mt. Katahdin in 2019. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

In addition to donating the land itself, Baxter created a trust that defines the exact makeup of the authority board: the state fisheries and wildlife commissioner, the state forest service director, and the attorney general. The board is tasked with upholding the terms of the trust.

At a public hearing earlier this month, Frey told the Legislature’s Joint Standing Committee on Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry that breaking the deeds of trust could land the issue in court. Under a worst-case scenario, ownership of the donated lands could revert to Baxter’s heirs.

Himself a former state lawmaker, Baxter took pains to shield the park from political interference, Frey said. He left the trust almost $7 million to provide for the park’s long-term management and assure its financial independence from the state.


Baxter himself objected to the Legislature’s attempt in 1967 to expand the board by adding members from nearby Millinocket and Greenville, according to historian Howard Whitcomb of Brunswick, the author of “Governor Baxter’s Magnificent Obsession.”

“I regard this bill as a personal attack against what I have done in creating Baxter State Park,” Baxter testified. “Such an action would break the trust which I established and I should be humiliated if I were ever called upon to go before a legislative committee to try to stop the passage.”

Baxter State Park Trail Supervisor Liz Thibault hikes up a 450-step staircase on the Hunt Trail which took over a decade to install. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Past attorneys general have rejected legislative efforts to replace the state forest service director’s seat on the board with the commissioner of the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, Frey noted. Efforts to expand hunting or allow planes in the park have also failed.

Sen. Craig Hickman, D-Winthrop, pressed Frey on his stand, noting that no court has ever been asked to consider the issue.

“If this moves forward, and it was challenged somewhere and rose to the level of the law court, that would be the first time the law court would have the opportunity to say whether or not the authority can be changed?” Hickman asked Frey.

“That would be a fair assessment,” Frey acknowledged during the Feb. 13 public hearing.


Still, the authority doesn’t operate in a vacuum. It is supported by a park director, a 15-person Baxter State Park Advisory Committee and subcommittees devoted to forest management, research and investment. No tribal representative serves on any of these committees.

Frey said the authority would welcome the Maine tribes to attend their meetings and provide them with counsel. He said no member of the public is turned away from what he described as intimate meetings where ideas are freely exchanged.

The legislative committee has yet to hold a work session on the bill, but the idea enjoys broad political support. House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, and House Minority Leader Billy Bob Faulkingham, R-Winter Harbor, are among its cosponsors.

Snow and clouds obscure the peak of Mt. Katahdin as seen from Patten. Kevin Bennett Photo

Many of Maine’s biggest environmental groups – Maine Conservation Voters, The Nature Conservancy, and the Appalachian Mountain Club – support the change, noting that the land conservation movement must examine its track record of protecting lands formerly seized from tribes.

“Conservation is my organization’s middle name,” said Maureen Drouin, executive director of Maine Conservation Voters. “But it’s time that we acknowledge the exclusion of Indigenous people in the systems we’ve built around conservation and start repairing them.”

If the bill becomes law, the new post would be filled by a member of one of Maine’s five federally recognized tribes or bands, collectively known as the Wabanaki.


John Neff, a historian and former Methodist pastor who co-authored a book about the park and still hikes the area at the age of 93, said he applauds the bill’s intent but believes it would violate Baxter’s wishes and set a dangerous precedent for the future.

“The trust was Baxter’s way of protecting the park from a great many groups – not the Wabanakis, but others – that might do it harm if their wishes were allowed,” Neff said. “Now having said that, I believe they should have a voice, a real voice. I think it would be welcomed.”

Rep. Benjamin Collings, D-Portland  Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

He thinks a member of the Wabanaki tribes of Maine should have a seat on the advisory council and the authority and park director should hold annual meetings with Wabanaki representatives. He thinks the park’s staff could benefit from regular meetings with Wabanaki educators.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Benjamin Collings, D-Portland, told the committee that other Maine institutions, such as the University of Maine and Maine Criminal Justice Academy, have joined the national movement to add tribal members to their governing boards.

Under the leadership of the first Native American to serve in a federal Cabinet office, the U.S. Department of Interior is now including tribal members in the management of federal lands, too, Collings noted. This bill would allow Maine to follow that example, Collings said.

He urged the committee to remember that tribal members in Maine were not even allowed to vote in state elections until 1967 – 32 years after Baxter donated Katahdin to the state and set up the trust and just two years before Baxter died.


“How can we honor a good concept – Baxter State Park, it’s great, right? – but at the same time acknowledge the history,” Collings said. “It’s no surprise to me that 80 years ago, 100 years ago, 70 years ago that a tribal member wouldn’t have been thought of to be included in this authority.”

Tribal members had no say when their ancestral lands were seized by the colonies, sold to one logging company after another or when Baxter created the trust, Collings said. This bill isn’t seeking to undo that wrongdoing, he said – it only seeks to add a formal tribal stewardship role.

Dana, the former chief of Penobscot Nation who reinvigorated the annual Katahdin 100 trek by foot and canoe from the Penobscot home reservation to the base of the mountain, urged lawmakers to honor the Wabanaki connection to the land that predated the park by thousands of years. Katahdin is a Penobscot word for “greatest mountain.”

“This deep connection to the mountain, its waters and now even the park has led me to seek a more concrete relationship with the park authority,” Dana said. The Wabanaki peoples of Maine, he said, want “to be given the appropriate seat, to have a meaningful voice.”

CORRECTION: This story was updated at 9:25 a.m. Friday, Feb. 24, 2023, to correct John Neff’s name.

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