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How Maine’s Forest Products Council emerged as a prime opponent of tribal sovereignty

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How Maine’s Forest Products Council emerged as a prime opponent of tribal sovereignty

Mar 27, 2023 | 9:00 am ET
By Evan Popp
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How Maine’s Forest Products Council emerged as a prime opponent of tribal sovereignty
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Photo: A rally in support of tribal sovereignty at the Maine State House | Photo via Maine Center for Economic Policy

The push to recognize Wabanaki tribal sovereignty has emerged as one of the most significant campaigns in Maine in recent years, touching on issues ranging from racial justice to environmental regulations and drawing widespread support across the state. 

Lawmakers and tribal leaders will again be pushing forward that campaign this legislative session after a sovereignty bill passed the Maine House last year but ultimately died in the legislature amid opposition from Democratic Gov. Janet Mills

If recent history repeats itself, tribal leaders and advocates can again expect pushback from a benign-sounding, yet influential organization: the Maine Forest Products Council. The trade industry group for the state’s forest economy, the Council states that it represents landowners, loggers, truckers, paper mills, tree farmers, foresters, lumber processors and more and is the voice for 30,000 “direct and indirect jobs in the forest management and wood manufacturing business.” Some of the state’s largest landowners, including the Canadian company J.D. Irving, are on the group’s board.   

And while the organization lobbies on a variety of different bills, it has for years now placed a consistent emphasis on opposing legislation that would allow the Wabanaki to be treated like all other federally-recognized tribes in the U.S

Opposition to tribal rights

Last year’s tribal sovereignty bill — LD 1626 — was introduced by now-Speaker of the House Rachel Talbot Ross (D-Portland) and supported by the Wabanaki and a wide swath of allies. That measure would have amended the 1980 Settlement Act tribes signed with the state of Maine that Wabanaki leaders say has stifled nations’ economic development and chipped away at their inherent sovereignty. Specifically, the bill would have strengthened tribal communities’ jurisdiction over their land and changed their current treatment as quasi municipalities within Maine to reflect their actual status as sovereign nations.

At a public hearing on the legislation in February of 2022, the bill received widespread support, with over 1,200 people submitting testimony on the measure, despite pointed opposition from the Mills administration.  

Along with the governor, a handful of people and entities spoke out against the bill. One of those groups was the Maine Forest Products Council, which enlisted Timothy Woodcock, an attorney with Eaton Peabody, to deliver testimony on behalf of the organization against the measure. In his testimony, Woodcock expressed concern that the sovereignty legislation might result in stronger regulations.

“L.D. 1626 would enable the Tribes to impose environmental standards, equal in legal stature with that of the State, and very likely even stricter,” he wrote, arguing that the change would “bring great uncertainty to the environmental-regulatory framework that now governs Maine’s forest lands.” 

It’s far from the only time the Forest Products Council has come out against sovereignty, as the group opposed another effort that lawmakers considered in 2020. Woodcock also delivered the Council’s testimony in opposition to that bill, claiming that the 2020 measure recognizing tribes’ sovereignty over their own lands would “place a cloud of uncertainty over our ability to replace lost woods markets and hamper our ability to attract modern, high-quality natural resource businesses to Maine.”

How Maine’s Forest Products Council emerged as a prime opponent of tribal sovereignty
Maine Forest Products Council executive director Patrick Strauch delivers testimony before the legislature. | Maine Forest Products Council via Facebook

The 2020 legislation prompted the Forest Products Council’s executive director, Patrick Strauch, to also submit testimony against the measure. In his memo to lawmakers, Strauch claimed that the push for tribal sovereignty could “destabilize the regulatory landscape for Maine forest products facilities, landowners and rural communities.”  

In addition to the state-based measures, the Forest Products Council has also testified against federal tribal rights legislation. Last year, Rep. Jared Golden, a Democrat, introduced an initiative that would have adjusted the 1980 Settlement Act to ensure that the Wabanaki were no longer excluded from federal laws that benefit other recognized tribes around the country. The effort was supported by the Wabanaki and a host of advocates but opposed once again by the Mills administration. Independent Sen. Angus King and Republican Sen. Susan Collins ultimately sank the bill, blocking it from being included in a congressional budget deal. Both Collins and King, who said in 2022 that he “love(s) the Maine Forest Products Council,” have spoken warmly about the group. 

Along with King, Collins and Mills, the Forest Products Council opposed Golden’s bill. In March 2022 testimony before the Committee on Natural Resources and Subcommittee on Indigenous People of the United States, Strauch said the measure would result in the tribes having too much authority over their own territory.  

Golden’s bill, Strauch said, would pave the way for new laws that would “provide the Tribes with significant regulatory and other authority over their far-flung holdings.” He added that “this would introduce great uncertainty into our ability to manage our lands.” 

‘It’s none of their business what we do on our lands’

To Barry Dana, former chief of the Penobscot Nation, comments such as the ones by Strauch miss the point. Dana argued that tribes should be the ones calling the shots on their own territory. 

“It’s none of their … business what we do on our lands,” he said of the Forest Products Council.  

Dana added that one reason for the conflict between tribes in Maine and the forest products industry is that the entities don’t necessarily have the same goals. 

“Our regulations are fairly strict,” he said of Indigenous nations’ environmental standards. “We want the forest to be healthy, not the forest products industry. You don’t have an industry if you don’t have a forest.” 

In a historic speech earlier this month in which Wabanaki leaders addressed both chambers of the legislature, current Penobscot Nation Chief Kirk Francis made a similar point.

“We are not opposed to development, but believe in responsible and sustainable development. These lands and natural resources have to last us and other Maine people forever. We cannot ruin them for profits today but need to responsibly manage them so they can benefit us all for generations to come,” he said, noting that the Penobscot Nation holds over 100,000 acres, two-thirds of which is managed for forestry.

Francis added that the Wabanaki are “capable of self-governance and should be treated as partners rather than threats to the future of the state.”

In a statement to Beacon in response to questions about the group’s opposition to tribal sovereignty, Strauch said the Forest Products Council “values its long working relationship with the tribes in the management of Maine’s forest resources” and stated that the organization hopes for an environment of collaboration on the upcoming sovereignty bill. But Strauch still expressed qualms with the push to reform the Settlement Act.

“Our concerns [about tribal sovereignty legislation] have been communicated in a meeting with tribal representatives, and we have been clear that our issue is about the treatment of shared natural resources and what type of regulatory regime would need to be in place as resources (air, water, wildlife) travel from one landowner to the next,” he said.

How Maine’s Forest Products Council emerged as a prime opponent of tribal sovereignty
Kirk Francis, chief of the Penobscot Nation, speaks at a tribal sovereignty event earlier this year. | Photo: Rafael Macias, Beacon

However, former state Rep. Jeffrey Evangelos, an independent from Friendship and a supporter of tribal sovereignty, panned the Forest Products Council’s stance on the issue. Evangelos, who served as a member of the legislative committee that oversaw the tribal sovereignty legislation last year, noted that the Council and the industry as a whole have been persistent and influential in their opposition to that campaign. 

“This lobbying consortium holds enormous power in the state, with most Republicans and many conservative/moderate Democrats fearful of any consequences of supporting full sovereignty and opposing the interests of the large timber and paper companies, in the irrational fear that tribal environmental oversight, which is exemplary, would harm the [forest products] industry,” Evangelos said in an email to Beacon

One example of how the forest products industry may be seeking to exert influence when it comes to tribal sovereignty and other issues is through political donations. For instance, during the 2022 election cycle, the Maine Forest Legacy PAC made a series of contributions to both major political parties. The Forest Legacy PAC is not explicitly tied to the Forest Products Council, but appears to be at least connected to the entity in some way, as the PAC’s treasurer, Krysta West, serves as the Council’s deputy director.   

In 2022, the Forest Legacy PAC donated $4,000 to Maine Republicans’ Senate campaign PAC and gave $2,000 to the party’s House campaign PAC. Republicans have generally been more opposed to tribal sovereignty legislation than Democrats. Still, the Forest Legacy PAC also gave some money — although a lesser amount — to Democrats, contributing $1,750 to the party’s House and Senate PACs. The Forest Legacy PAC also gave Mills and her 2022 opponent, former Gov. Paul LePage — both of whom oppose tribal sovereignty — $1,725 each. 

Mills’ office did not respond to a request for comment about whether or not the Forest Products Council’s stance on tribal sovereignty has influenced her thinking on the issue. 

Despite such contributions to politicians and the Forest Products Council’s stated opposition to tribal sovereignty, the industry is not a monolith on the issue. For example, the Baskahegan Company — a woodlands management group that has been a member of the Forest Products Council since the 1980s — is a vocal supporter of tribal sovereignty, submitting testimony in favor of LD 1626 last session. 

John Manganello, president and CEO of the company, told Beacon in an email that “not supporting tribal sovereignty is, at best, passive acceptance for continued oppression.”

Manganello, who said he is aware of the Council’s opposition to tribal sovereignty, added that Baskahegan will continue to support Wabanaki efforts to reform the Settlement Act. 

Long history of disputes between forest products industry and tribes 

Some context for the Forest Products Council’s opposition to tribal sovereignty can be found in interactions and battles between the Wabanaki and the industry, and those connected with it, going back decades. For example, Woodcock — the lawyer who has frequently testified on behalf of the Forest Products Council against sovereignty legislation — noted in his remarks to lawmakers in 2020 that he was actually involved in revisions made to the 1980 Settlement Act, the legislation that tribes are seeking to reform. 

In a memo to lawmakers, Woodcock wrote that he was the Minority Staff Counsel for the Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs in 1980, appointed to the position by Maine Republican Sen. William Cohen. Woodcock stated that he was “deeply involved in the post-hearing discussions of problems with the [Settlement Act] as well as revisions that were made to address those problems.” 

In that testimony, Woodcock presented the Settlement Act as a fair agreement between the tribes in the state. However, as documented by a memo from former Maine Attorney General Richard Cohen, it’s likely the state knew it was getting the better deal. 

“The framework of laws and the Settlement Act is by far the most favorable state Indian jurisdictional relationship that exists anywhere in the United States,” then-AG Cohen wrote. “As a general rule, states have little authority to enforce state laws on Indian lands … The proposal before you not only avoids such a situation, but recovers for the state much of the jurisdiction over the existing reservations that it had lost.” 

Another significant conflict between the tribes and the state has a Forest Products Council connection as well. In 2012, then-Maine Attorney General William Schneider issued an advisory opinion that the Penobscot River was subject to state statutes, not tribal law, prompting the Penobscot Nation to sue. The Penobscot Nation argued that they should have stewardship over their namesake river — given that they never ceded the territory to Maine — and therefore should be able to regulate activity on the waterway. 

How Maine’s Forest Products Council emerged as a prime opponent of tribal sovereignty
Photo: Courtesy of Sunlight Media Collective via Facebook.

In a case seen as yet another front in the ongoing sovereignty dispute between Maine and the Wabanaki, the tribes suffered a legal defeat after the U.S. Supreme Court last year denied the Penobscot Nation’s appeal of a lower court decision against their argument. 

While it doesn’t appear that the Forest Products Council itself took a stance in that case, a company on the group’s board — Verso Paper — acted as an intervener against the Penobscot Nation and their attempt to regain a portion of their territorial sovereignty.  

Along with Verso Paper, other members of the forest products industry have tangled with the Wabanaki over issues related to water quality and land stewardship. For example, Great Northern Paper Company in 2001 sued the Penobscot Nation and Passamaquoddy Tribe for access to documents in a dispute over whether the state had the authority to regulate water resources on Indigenous land. Just a year before, that dispute resulted in leaders of the Penobscot Nation, Passamaquoddy Tribe at Pleasant Point and Passamaquoddy Tribe at Indian Township being sentenced with contempt of court for refusing requests to inspect tribal records. 

Nickie Sekera, co-founder of the anti-privatization group Community Water Justice, said the Forest Products Council and other industry groups have repeatedly fought water quality regulations — often making the same arguments that they deploy in their campaign against tribal sovereignty. 

“I think their argument is weak at best, if not standing on the wrong side of good law and recognizing [Wabanaki] sovereignty,” Sekera said.

Dana also said the opposition to higher tribal environmental standards from interests such as the forest products industry is flawed. He argued that when tribes implement enhanced environmental regulations — which sovereignty would likely give them a greater ability to do — the ripple effects of that action improve the lives of people beyond their borders. 

“Anything the tribes can do to protect the forest, the animals, the ecology, the biology — Maine people benefit,” he said. “[It creates] cleaner air, cleaner water — a better, sustainable forest.”