2006 to 2014
unsettled
An area off Peter Dana Point Road in Indian Township has been freshly logged in this pinhole camera photo. How the Passamaquoddy have managed forestlands in the past decade has led to a significant rift between the tribe’s two reservations. Photo by Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

T

he forest, in theory, should be the tribe’s most important legacy of the Indian Land Claims Settlement Act of 1980.

Managed correctly, the Passamaquoddy’s 100,000-plus acres of forest and animal habitat should be a source of continuing prosperity, of employment and cultural security, home to game and fish and sacred places, a vast preserve of the Wabanaki people’s 13,000-year-old homeland.

In practice, critics say, it has been used to enrich a handful of well-connected tribal members at the expense of the larger community.

Here’s how the tribe’s forestry policy is supposed to work: Tribal forestlands are to be managed for the long-term value of the woods over time by professional foresters and rangers at the tribe’s Forestry Department. The actual harvesting is contracted out – through either a bidding process on the open market or a negotiated one with tribal loggers – with the tribe collecting cutting fees, or “stumpage,” along the way.

Because the forest is a tribal trust – the shared patrimony of all Passamaquoddy people – the federal government is legally obligated to oversee these activities to ensure that this shared resource is not squandered or looted. This task falls to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, a division of the U.S. Department of the Interior, whose forestry experts have the power to intervene if management appears to have gotten out of hand, and can even shut down forestry activities.

In reality, however, regulation of the forest has been effectively captured by some of the men who hold contracts to cut it.

In recent years these men – Billy Nicholas, his brother Leslie Nicholas and Richard Sabattus – all served on the Joint Tribal Council for Indian Township. Billy served as the reservation’s governor from 2006 to 2010 and is currently chief game warden at Indian Township, where he has partial responsibility for the protection of forestlands. For several years in the mid- and late 2000s, another tribal member, Wade Lola, who at the time had a contract and a logging partnership with Nicholas, also served on the council. In April of this year, Nicholas suddenly resigned from the council and was replaced by Sonja Dana, whose husband is a logger.

When the Joint Tribal Council meets, members who are logging contractors have shared oversight power of the Forestry Department itself. The body sets the stumpage rates that are paid to the tribe, and can determine who can get logging contracts and under what conditions.

“Although – when we have our Joint Council meetings and decide on stumpage rates – they don’t vote, (the logging contractors) have a lot of influence,” said current Indian Township Chief Joseph Socobasin. “I don’t think they should be able to hold any contract, let alone a logging contract. If they are going to be part of the policymakers and decision-makers of the tribe and they have a contract on the side, there is a potential conflict of interest.”

It is more than just a potential problem.

None of the recent councilors who have held logging contracts actually works in the woods. Rather, they subcontract the work, usually to non-native loggers, and simply collect a share of the profits. Nicholas did this while also collecting a salary from the tribe as either governor (about $102,000 a year) or chief game warden ($52,000) in addition to honoraria, bonuses and stipends to sit on the boards of tribal enterprises such as BlackBear Communications and Creative Apparel.

The current chief at Pleasant Point, Clayton Cleaves, says that arrangement is improper. “I think a council member should be able to get a (logging contract), but he should be right out there sawing down trees,” said Cleaves, a former logger himself. “Now if I’m a department director or something already, then by all means I should give somebody else the opportunity to harvest those trees and earn a living.”

During the early 2000s, loggers harvested between 3,300 and 7,600 cords a year from tribal forests. In 2006, the year Billy Nicholas became governor, that figure jumped to 15,270, then to 27,860 in 2008 and 29,102 in 2009, the highest harvest since 1985, when huge stands of forest were cut across Maine in response to a severe outbreak of spruce budworm. Last year the figure was 22,140 cords.

During this period, the Joint Tribal Council overruled Forestry Department recommendations and set stumpage rates far below the current market rate. “I think it was 50 percent of what they had originally proposed,” Chief Socobasin said of the 2012 sale at Holeb Township, near Jackman. This contributed to the Forestry Department running out of money in 2013. “We had to put $300,000 into our forestry program or we would have had to shut the door.”

unsettled
This aerial photograph shows a clear-cut section of Passamaquoddy tribal land near the Blood Brook wilderness area just below Route 6 in northern Washington County. The federal Bureau of Indian Affairs, which oversees the Passamaquoddy Forestry Department, pointed to illegal cutting among the serious problems it identified with the tribe’s forest management practices in its annual review for 2012. Photo by Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

D

ocuments obtained by the Press Herald show that the Bureau of Indian Affairs has expressed numerous concerns with the tribe’s forestry management in recent years, including the low stumpage rates.

In early 2012, the bureau learned the tribe was allowing Billy Nicholas’ company, Nicholas Family Logging, to harvest timber without a BIA-approved permit or contract from tribal lands at Lowelltown, northeast of Coburn Gore on the Quebec border. It ordered the tribe to have Nicholas’ company “cease operations immediately” until a valid contract was approved.

The BIA’s annual review for 2012 found serious problems, including missing reports, the absence of a full-time forester at the tribe and the illegal cutting of “a still undetermined amount of timber” from tribal lands near Blood Brook in northern Washington County. BIA officials confirmed to the Press Herald that Nicholas Family Logging was among the harvesters involved in the improper cutting.

The BIA also found “that tribal loggers were paying stumpage at less than the approved contract rates” in an adjacent area, and noted that the Joint Tribal Council had for months failed to provide the agency key documentation related to the incident.

In mid-December 2012, Scott Meneely, a regional forester with the BIA, wrote to the head of the Passamaquoddy Forestry Department, Ernie Neptune, seeking justification for the low stumpage rates at Holeb, but received no response. In late January 2013, agency officials informed the tribe that the low rates were unacceptable and threatened to shut down the Holeb operation.

By February 2013 the Forestry Department was in crisis, with the BIA investigating the improprieties at Blood Brook and the department’s coffers empty because of the stumpage underpayment. But when the Joint Tribal Council tried to meet to deal with these issues, three logging contractors on the council – Billy Nicholas, Leslie Nicholas and Richard Sabattus – failed to attend scheduled meetings, denying the body a quorum.

“They are interfering in the progress of work by boycotting the (Joint Tribal Council) forestry issue until their demands are met,” Indian Township Chief Socobasin and Vice Chief Clayton Sockabasin said in an article in the tribal newsletter, Keq Leyu, in March 2013. “It looks as though the tail wants to wag the dog.”

Socobasin later wrote that clear-cutting was taking place across tribal territory.

“It is obvious by checking the Google Earth sites that wrongs have been committed,” he wrote.

The BIA refused to answer any questions from the Press Herald, including basic policy questions, but bureau officials immediately alerted tribal officials to the newspaper’s interest in the forest management issues. The office of U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, to whom the BIA answers, declined to answer questions about why the agency would refuse to speak to the press.

“BIA is guilty too because of their trust responsibility,” said Brian Altvater, former lieutenant governor at Pleasant Point. “They will write a letter and say they have five findings, and then the next year there are the same five findings. They threaten sanctions, but they just seem to stay in limbo.

“The problem with Forestry is that they are more worried about the logging contract holders than they are about running it like a long-term business,” he added. “The tribe should be earning millions from all that timber that’s being cut, but instead it’s costing us $300,000 to bail it out.”

Neptune, the tribal forestry director who assumed office in May 2012 after many of the improprieties had taken place, said that assessment isn’t entirely fair. The BIA gives the tribe $200,000 a year to run the Forestry Department, but the Joint Tribal Council has chosen to spend those funds elsewhere, he said. The maneuver is legal, but it means his department has had to sustain itself entirely from stumpage fees.

“Maybe (tribal government) would value us more if they would give us that operating money upfront and receive a check from us at the end of the year,” Neptune said. “A lot of people don’t understand that we’ve been generating another $200,000 a year for a decade, but the tribe takes it off the top.”

He said forestry revenue was constrained by his department’s commitment to maintaining habitat for deer, bear, fish and other wildlife, as well as certain sacred or historic sites. He said he was also upset by the department’s lax oversight under his predecessors, but that the situation has changed.

“This is my land too, and I want to make sure it’s managed properly,” Neptune added.

In January of this year, the public got involved. Hundreds of angry members of the tribe signed petitions demanding a public referendum that would ban elected officials from holding logging contracts and would require all cutting to be done by members of the tribe.

Logging contract holders argue it is impossible to meet their labor demands within the tribe. “Do you know how much it’s cost us in the last 25 years to try to train native people to come work with my husband,” said council member Sonja Dana, whose spouse used to log tribal land himself but now subcontracts the work to outsiders. “We had only one tribal logger who came rain or shine. … If you don’t have somebody who is family, you are out of luck.”

The petitions to restrict the logging contracts were initially rejected on the advice of reservation attorney Craig Francis, who said the petitioners failed to attach “a proposed ordinance or resolution” and therefore the proposed referendum “does not need to be put to a vote by the people.” Francis’ stance fueled anger on social media sites, and in March tribal officials decided to schedule a vote after all.

Simultaneously, the Joint Tribal Council met to take action against the chief organizer of the petitions, Stephanie Bailey, who edits the all-volunteer newsletter Keq Leyu (in Passamaquoddy, it means “What’s Going On”). The newsletter, which currently exists as an invitation-only Facebook page, is the tribe’s closest thing to a free press.

The council ordered Bailey to rename the online newsletter because “Keq Leyu” was the name of a former government-run publication, now long-defunct.

Dana, one of the councilors, said she introduced the name-changing measure because she believed the closed website could nonetheless be accessed by third parties and that it was allowing state officials to keep apprised of internal tribal deliberations. She also said she was offended by the pseudonymous user names – which she referred to as vulgar Passamaquoddy phrases – employed by some of the site’s members.

“There’s some stuff in there that’s good, but you should see what some of the people in there talk about,” Dana said. “So the tribal chief told her: ‘You’re done’ and “Take it off.’ ”

Bailey isn’t complying with the order. “I’m going to laugh at them, because, as I told the chief, if you think you have any right to shut this down, you’re crazy,” she said.

Meanwhile, Chief Socobasin said in an April interview with the Press Herald that he’s been pushing to increase stumpage rates, with some success. “We have increased the rates, but they still need to be higher,” he said. “We’re moving in the right direction, but it’s sometimes difficult because of having three joint council members who are loggers and influence some of the voting members on what the rates should be.”

Vice Chief Sockabasin said he sympathizes with the public frustration on the issue but that progress is being made. “There’s been a separation between what is best for the resource and the tribe and what is best for the tribal member who is out there trying to make a living” from logging, he said. “Now we’re shifting back to having more of the benefit to the tribe versus the individuals.”

But controversy over the issues has reached a breaking point. In May, voters approved both logging-related referendums – by a more than four-to-one ratio at Pleasant Point – but Chief Socobasin ruled that they had failed because they allegedly need a two-thirds majority on both reservations. (At Indian Township, the ban on non-tribal loggers passed 127-121; the ban on councilors holding logging contracts by 140-97.)

The separate “constitutions” adopted by each of the reservations disagree on this point and, in any case, are not binding on pan-tribal issues, such as forestry assets and Joint Tribal Council ethics.

In the absence of a unified constitution, nobody is certain if the rule of law has been upheld or overturned, and nobody has the power to challenge it or to decide.

In a stunning development June 20, the governor of Pleasant Point, also called Sipayik, and the tribal council announced that they considered both referendums to have passed legitimately, and were formally breaking with Indian Township, also known as Motahkomikuk, over forestry management. They said they would be informing the BIA of their decision “to honor the results of the referendum” and would ask the agency “to assist with the protection of the tribal forestry resources.”

Pleasant Point Gov. Cleaves and his deputy, they said, would no longer participate in forestry management decisions, nor sign Forestry Department checks “until this matter has been resolved to reflect the will of the people.”

“Sipayik has struggled for decades trying to co-manage tribal forestry with Motahkomikuk only to see tribal forest resources be more and more exploited, and this is not satisfactory to the people,” the Pleasant Point government’s official statement declared. “This struggle has gone on much too long and it is time to declare that this forest management experiment is not working and must be fixed.”

Neither reservation chief responded to a request for comment on this development.

As the tribe runs headlong into this latest constitutional crisis, forestry problems are not the only ones it will confront.

Colin Woodard can be contacted at 791-6317 or at:

[email protected]

 

Coming tomorrow:

A new chief, another run at a constitution