Trust For Public Land Betrays Public Trust

. Katahdin from River Pond, Maine. Photo George Wuerthner

In 2022, when private timber lands adjacent to Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument (KWWNM) became available, a member of Maine’s Congressional delegation introduced legislation to authorize the National Park Service to acquire nearly 43,000 acres of land to add it to the national monument. 

President Barack Obama created Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument in 2016. It covers 87,563 acres of land acquired by Burt’s Bees entrepreneur Roxanne Quimby. Quimby graciously donated the land to be managed as part of our National Park System. 

Katahdin from Dacey Pond, Baxter State Park, Maine. Photo George Wuerthner

The land lies immediately southeast of Baxter State Park, Maine’s largest wilderness reserve, which contains Katahdin, Maine’s highest point. The National Park Service manages the National Monument, which is home to lynx, moose, bear, whitetail deer, Atlantic salmon, bald eagles and other species.

Katahdin from Katahdin Woods and Waters NM, Maine. Photo Jym St Pierre

RESTORE the North Woods has been advocating since 1994 for a 3.2 million-acre Maine Woods National Park and Preserve. RESTORE views the creation of Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument as a first step in achieving this vision. 

When the national park was first proposed, it drew opposition from some prominent politicians, such as Republicans, Gov. Paul LePage and U.S. Sen. Susan Collins. However, since the monument was established, it has been extremely popular. That has persuaded most local, state, and national political players to lend their support. The legislation to expand the monument underscores this support.

Wassataquoik Stream, Katahdin Woods and Waters NM, Maine. Photo Jym St. Pierre

When 31,357 acres adjacent to the monument were put up for sale, the Trust for Public Land (TPL) sought to buy and hold the property for transfer to the government. This is a strategy the TPL has used for decades in hundreds of areas across the country.

However, this winter TPL announced that it would raise funds to buy and donate the land to the Penobscot Tribe, a concept often called “land back.” This would be the largest donation of land ever made by a nonprofit to a tribe in the United States, but it effectively closed off the prospect of expansion of Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument.

Apparently, TPL sees no irony in buying land to privatize rather than adding it to the public domain.

Katahdin Woods and Waters NM, Maine. Photo Jym St Pierre

This transfer has a much larger implication than the fate of land that should and could have been added to a national park unit. It seriously undermines the national park idea and the preservation of natural ecological and evolutionary processes. Of special concern is that the “land back” concept is gaining support among organizations— including many land trusts and major conservation groups such as Sierra Club and The Wilderness Society—that traditionally have been strong advocates of protecting land for the benefit of all Americans.

Clearcuts in northern Maine’s working forest. George Wuerthner.

Representatives of the Penobscot tribe say they plan to use the land as “working forest” for sustainable forestry. It may be better than the old cut-and-run practices of the past, but it would damage natural ecosystems and degrade the region’s ecological integrity. I have written about the so-called “sustainable forestry” concept. At sites advertising “sustainable forestry,” I have seen that the emphasis is on the economic goal of providing a supply of wood to the forest products industry, not on the biocentric goal of preserving ecosystem integrity.

Katahdin Woods and Waters NM. Maine. Photo Jym St Pierre

At the request of TPL, Maine’s U.S. Senator Argus King has modified his original proposal in an updated Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument Access Act. Instead of purchasing the entire 42,000-acre tract to add to the national monument, this amended bill only authorizes the acquisition of roughly 2,500 acres for the monument. In terms of the preservation of this land to sustain natural forests and wildlife, this is a huge disappointment. It is a direct result of TPL’s plan to transfer the land to the Penobscot Tribe instead of to all Americans.

Nahmakanta Lake Maine is a state reserve along the Appalachian Trail that is part of the 3% protected landscape in New England. George Wuerthner

An important report on New England’s forests, “Wildlands in New England: Past, Present, and Future,” provides an in-depth overview of the current state of land use and preservation in the region. Among the report’s findings is that only 3% of New England is permanently protected as wildlands. Maine has among the lowest acreages of protected landscapes in New England. Corporate interests own 12 million acres in New England. Most of these lands are “working forests” focused on logging and most of these forests are in Maine.

A common fallacy in New England is that tribal people significantly modified and “managed” most of the landscape long before the arrival of Europeans. By this measure, anything humans do, like logging, is really just emulating prehistoric conditions. This idea has been seriously questioned by ecologists. As David Forster, one of the authors of the study concludes: “Our data show a landscape that was dominated by intact, old-growth forests that were shaped largely by regional climate for thousands of years before European arrival.”

Clearcuts in the ‘working forest’ of Maine. George Wuerthner

A paper, “Forest Clearing to Create Early Successional Habitat: Questionable Benefits and Significant Costs,” challenges the idea that forestry creates conditions like pre-European settlement. 

If the land in question is transferred to the Penobscot Tribe and is managed as a “working forest,” it would have far weaker protection than under NPS management. “Working forests” allow commercial logging and other resource extraction, and may even include residential or commercial development. There are many examples of tribes across the country supporting resource exploitation and incompatible uses on the lands they control.

I repeatedly contacted TPL to ask whether the proposed land transfer would include any meaningful limits on exploitation or development but I have received no response. Public statements by TPL have repeated the usual rhetoric that the land is sacred to the Penobscot tribe. However, it is apparently not so sacred that it will be protected from logging done with 21st century feller-bunchers, chainsaws, and logging trucks—which are hardly the low-technology traditional tools that existed before European settlement.

TPL reassures us that we should trust that all will be well. They repeat the common but inaccurate claim that indigenous-protected areas often function as well as, or even better than, those managed by agency professionals or credible conservation organizations.

Old Faithful Geyser at Yellowstone NP, WY. Parks like Yellowstone are the foundation for conservation. Photo George Wuerthner

This narrative is part of a widespread attack on wildlands and parks that is increasingly common in academic settings and is an anthropocentric trend in conservation. The idea that somehow parks and wilderness are passe in New England is widespread among land trusts in the region. TPL is apparently under this the same misconception.

Like many in the movement to “decolonize” parks and other protected landscapes, the Oakland Institute has a perspective that assumes, incorrectly, that Indigenous cultures “managed” extensive areas of the landscape and did so sustainably. The Oakland Institute suggests on its website that “traditional Indigenous territories coincide with areas that hold 80 percent of the planet’s biodiversity, demonstrating that Indigenous Peoples provide effective and sustainable conservation.”

Such statements are a prime example of assuming that correlation implies causation. They ignore the fact that many of the tribal holdings are in places like the Amazon rainforest, which has the greatest biodiversity on the planet. Naturally, these areas would have greater biodiversity than elsewhere.

Plus, all tribal cultures, including the human ancestors of European, Asian, and African descendants, had small human populations and possessed limited technology, which constrained their abilities to modify biodiversity and ecological processes. Few tribal people on the Earth today exist without conveniences, such as guns, chainsaws, nets, boats, ATVs, snowmobiles, and modern medicine, which change the relationship and ability of any people to modify evolutionary and ecological processes.

Oil rig on the Blackfeet Reservation adjacent to Glacier National Park. Nearly the entire Blackfeet Reservation was leased for oil and gas development, even “sacred” lands such as Chief Mountain. Photo Tony Bynum

Shelby Semmes, TPL’s New England vice president, studied anthropology, with a minor in economics. She took courses with professor Paige West, who was focused on studying the supposed flaws of “fortress conservation,” a pejorative term for the idea that biodiversity is best protected through ecosystems that function in isolation, away from human disturbance.

Logged lands on western tribal reservation. Photo George Wuerthner

TPL uses the rhetoric that tribal people genetically and magically have a deep connection to the land, and thus would not exploit it. However, my experience with tribal people, at least in the United States, is that they talk about conservation when they do not control the land or its management, but when they stand to gain political power or economic opportunity, they are just like every other capitalist. The maxim “follow the money” often determines their position on resource exploitation. If TPL staff in New England visited western Indian reservations they would find many reservations are among the most logged over, overgrazed, over-hunted lands in the West.

Tribal hide hunting extirpated bison across many parts of the West by t he 1850s, long before the commercial slaughter of the 1870s. Photo George Wuerthner

Even in the days before widespread Euro-American settlement, tribal people were perfectly capable of overhunting wildlife. For instance, there is strong evidence that indigenous hunting for hides led to the decline of bison across much of the West, even before large-scale commercial hunting began in the 1870s. Still earlier, there is evidence of overhunting by tribes in California, not to mention the loss of more than 1300 bird species on islands colonized by Polynesians. These are just a few examples.

The specific studies referenced by TPL in their announcement of the land transfer in Maine are not cited. However, I am familiar with many of them, and they are almost all from places such as Brazil, where there are extensive tribal reserves. In general, among the studies I have read, the comparison is between tribal reserves and industrially exploited lands. A further problem with at least some of these studies is that the authors (usually from anthropology departments, not ecology or biology departments) incorrectly define biodiversity.

Many are confused by the term biodiversity. It does not mean one counts all species, but rather native species. Cheatgrass, an invasive exotic adds to the total number species in this location, but would not be counted towards biodiversity because it is an exotic species. Photo George Wuerthner

Conservation biologists define biodiversity as the variety and variability of biological organisms and the natural distribution and population of native species and influence by evolutionary processes. However, many people in the humanities, such as anthropologists, political scientists, and historians, tend to include any species, whether native or not, and, if native, they generally do not document their historic distribution and numbers.

This is like comparing Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands in the US to national parks and claiming that heavily exploited BLM lands support more biodiversity because they have created more habitat for weedy species such as cheatgrass or exotic fish, birds, and mammals. Of course, where there is any land disturbance, many non-native species tend to colonize such sites. This should be considered a detraction from the area’s biodiversity, not a positive addition.

Parks like Yosemite NP in California, in general, do a better job of preserving species, evolutionary and ecological processes than other land designation, including “working forests.” Photo George Wuerthner

Far too much of the Earth’s surface is already exploited for human ends. Yet, criticism of wildlands and parks is growing in academic circles and now in land trusts. My two books, “Keeping the Wild-Against the Domestication of the Earth” and “Protecting the Wild—Parks and Wilderness the Foundation of Conservation,” address this trend.

Aldo Leopold once quipped:

“The last word in ignorance is the man who says of an animal or plant, ‘What good is it?’ If the land mechanism as a whole is good, then every part is good, whether we understand it or not. If the biota, in the course of aeons, has built something we like but do not understand, then who but a fool would discard seemingly useless parts? To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.”

Bison entering Yellowstone NP via Roosevelt Arch. Photo George Wuerthner

Parks and wilderness areas are our best “controls” allowing us to compare the impacts of human exploitation with areas where such activities are limited. Despite this record, there is a growing perspective that somehow tribal people possess, either by genetics or culture, a natural tendency to protect landscape evolutionary and ecological processes. This is more myth than reality, as I show in my recent piece, “The Indian Iron Curtain or the Emperor has No Clothes.”

It is unfortunate that the Trust for Public Land is working to limit expansion of a national park unit, which would provide the greatest preservation for regional ecological and evolutionary processes, and instead is adding to the already large percentage of Maine’s “working forests” that are logged for financial gain.

Virgin River in Zion National Park, Utah. Photo George Wuerthner

We don’t need more forests that are forced into working to produce more private profits.

If TPL wants to spend its funds buying land to privatize and transfer to a tribe, there are millions of other acres available in the Maine Woods other than those immediately adjacent to a national park unit and land proposed for park expansion.

For balance, we need more forests that are truly working for healthy, natural ecosystems. It appears that, at least in the case of the Maine Woods. TPL has lost its way. This is a betrayal of the Public Trust. Perhaps it is time for them to change their name to the Trust for Private Lands to more accurately portray their new mission.


  1. Jeff Hoffman Avatar
    Jeff Hoffman

    I didn’t realize that this anti-environmental/phony environmental ideology was becoming so prevalent. I read both of George’s books mentioned here, but I didn’t know about this stuff until I read the books. As usual, once I become educated on an environmental issue, I learn that things are worse than I thought. And I’m not an optimist!

  2. easternsierraheidi Avatar

    I used to think that lands trusts were great. Then some years ago the local land trust was recruiting volunteers to help BLM kill any pinyon pines that were sprouting in what had once been a pinyon forest but was cut and bulldozed to do something for something. Sometimes it was fire safety, sometimes it was to improve deer habitat, other times it was to “save” the sage grouse – it depended on who I was speaking to and what kind of assumptions they had made about my interest. I had been a very active member of the organization so I wrote asked to speak to the person/people who had made the decision to help the government kill off the pinyon jays by helping to destroy their habitat. I was ignored, removed from all mailing lists and blocked from posting on the social media of the local “environmental” orgs if I spoke of the issue. The mission statement of the land trust states that they are “conserving and restoring safe homes for the iconic wildlife that call the Eastern Sierra home.” yet they refused to discuss the pinyon jays who “call the Eastern Sierra home”. I call bullshit. Bright green bullshit. The kind that indicates some kind of systemic sickness.

  3. lou Avatar

    If the Trust won’t reply, then maybe contact Land Trust Accreditation Commission, and any major donors you can locate. They evidently are not required to report donors on their federal forms, which I think is a mistake. We need to know who is giving to charities, the large amounts anyway.

    This is an abuse of their stated purpose. They are buying land and not using it for public lands. Also there may be useful info that can be gotten from the Charity Navigator which gives it a high rating, and lists documents and organizational info.

    This is just so disgusting.

  4. Ida Lupine Avatar
    Ida Lupine

    What a disappointment. I was hoping this would have gone through as national park land. I just don’t like leaving it to chance as to whether a group will do the right thing to protect it as wilderness or not.

  5. Ida Lupine Avatar
    Ida Lupine

    A dumb question – so if you are going to donate or sell land for preservation, is it best to go the land trust route, conservation easement, or both?

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George Wuerthner is an ecologist and writer who has published 38 books on various topics related to environmental and natural history. He has visited over 400 designated wilderness areas and over 200 national park units.

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George Wuerthner