Effort Will Result in Historic Tribal Land Return While Creating Vital Public Access to Popular National Monument

In an innovative land back project that centers Indigenous self-determination and land care, some 30,000 acres will be restored to the Penobscot Nation; TPL will seek to add critical road access to Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument

The Penobscot Nation and Trust for Public Land (TPL) today announced a comprehensive plan for 31,367 acres in the Katahdin region of Maine that TPL acquired late last year.

The effort, when completed, will return nearly 30,000 acres of land taken from the Penobscot Nation in the nineteenth century. It will represent the largest land return between a U.S.-based nonprofit and a Tribal Nation and will center Indigenous self-determination around land care.

At the same time, TPL aspires to create vitally needed southern access to Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument on the roads through the land.

“We are very excited to work with TPL towards this common goal of returning a portion of unceded lands back to the governance of the Penobscot Nation” said Penobscot Nation Chief Kirk Francis. “The Nation highly regards the East Branch of the Penobscot River and her tributaries. We are also ecstatic for the opportunity to explore and improve the aquatic and wildlife habitat within this parcel to conserve more land in the Katahdin region for our future generations.”

The historic move to convey significant acreage to the Penobscot Nation aligns with TPL’s commitment to support Tribal nations and Indigenous communities in their efforts to recover, restore, and protect their ancestral homelands.

“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,” said Trust for Public Land President and CEO Diane Regas. “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.”

Today, members of the Wabanaki Nations — including Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, Maliseet, Mi’kmaq, and Abenaki communities — legally steward only one percent of their ancestral lands in Maine. The return of this land to the Penobscot Nation is part of a broader effort to recenter Wabanaki people and communities in land relationship and ownership. The intertribal Wabanaki Commission on Land and Stewardship, Psiw ut skitkamiq kignumin (the whole earth is our home), whose mission is to improve the health and well-being of Wabanaki people through a sustained effort to expand access, management, and ownership of lands to practice land-based cultures across Wabanaki homeland, helps guide this work.

The land contains abundant forests, wetlands, 53 miles of streams, and is situated near the base of Katahdin and within the Penobscot River watershed, which is considered sacred and vital to Penobscot community and culture.

It hosts productive forestland and recreational trails – both of which support local communities and economies – and the rivers, streams, wetlands, ponds, and forests on the property support diverse fish and wildlife. Because of its size, elevation, and biological diversity, the conservation and long-term stewardship of the property are pivotal to helping the region mitigate the impacts of climate change.

Structure and Focus of the Effort

When the land went up for sale in late 2022, TPL secured loans and purchased the property as an interim owner. Since then, TPL has been working with partners to establish a long-term plan for the land. TPL and the Penobscot Nation are now launching an effort to raise $32 million to pay off these loans and see the project through fruition, which entails:

  1. Re-establishing Penobscot Nation as legal stewards of the land. Penobscot Nation will oversee the protection of critical wildlife, steward the land to mitigate the impacts of climate change, and maintain sustainable forest management on the property. The partners will take explicit steps to ensure the land is transferred in a manner that supports Indigenous self- determination of land, including transferring the land without a conservation easement.
  2. Creating new and much needed southern access to Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument. Given the close proximity to Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, this land has long been viewed as a critical puzzle piece in providing much- needed access for the communities of Millinocket, East Millinocket, and Medway. TPL expects to make key roadways available for National Park Service (NPS) to create this southern access. This vision would rely on enactment of new federal legislation to authorize NPS to acquire property interests on the roads and associated lands.
  3. Ensuring trail connections and an economic boost for communities: In addition to benefiting the economies of surrounding communities by creating new public access into the monument, the effort will ensure legal public access to the Katahdin Region Multi-Use Trail through a trail easement held by the State of Maine. This trail will help link communities to each other and to lands through the region. The increased access to the monument, associated tourism, and current and future timber production on the property would bring significant economic benefits to surrounding communities.

About Penobscot Nation
The Penobscot Nation is a federally recognized tribe located in what is now known as Maine. The Nation is regarded as having one of the oldest continuous governments in the world. As a riverine tribe, the Penobscots rely on the river, who is also a citizen of the tribe, and surrounding lands for subsistence. The Nation currently holds over 128,000 acres for the benefit of its citizens, much of this land is located within the Penobscot River watershed. This includes over 95,000 acres of trust land, 5000 acres of reservation land, and 28,000 acres in fee-simple ownership. What most would call natural resources, are thought of as relatives to citizens of the Nation.

About Trust for Public Land
Trust for Public Land (TPL) is a national nonprofit that works to connect everyone to the benefits and joys of the outdoors. As a leader in equitable access to the outdoors, TPL works with communities to create parks and protect public land where they are needed most, including sites that reconnect Indigenous and Tribal communities to their ancestral lands and outdoor spaces that honor Black history and culture. Since 1972, TPL has protected more than 4 million acres of public land, created more than 5,364 parks, trails, schoolyards, and iconic outdoor places, raised $93 billion in public funding for parks and public lands, and connected nearly 9.4 million people to the outdoors. For the past two decades, TPL has worked with more than 70 tribes and Indigenous communities to protect and return more than 200,000 acres of ancestral lands. To learn more, visit tpl.org.