A split federal appeals court ruled Friday that Maine has the authority to regulate paddlers, hunters and fishermen on the Penobscot River.

The case results from an opinion written in 2012 by then-Maine Attorney General Bill Schneider. He asserted that the state had the authority to regulate some activities on the river, but the Penobscot Nation then sued, saying it owned the river under the terms of the 1980 Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act.

The Penobscot Nation’s lawsuit was backed by the federal government, although the reasoning for asserting the tribe’s ownership of the river differed slightly between the two.

The 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston tossed out the Penobscots’ lawsuit Friday after determining that state regulation of the river hasn’t led to any interference – or indication that any interference would be forthcoming – with the Penobscots’ sustenance fishing on the river. If that changes, the court said, the tribe could sue at that time.

Judge Juan R. Torruella dissented from the majority’s 29-page ruling, saying it represented another in a “long and appalling history” of breaking treaties with Native American nations. His dissent largely hinged on whether the lands on the river given to the Penobscot Nation under the treaty included submerged lands, including those near islands in the river. He said that his reading of the 1980 treaty indicates that the Penobscots retained fishing rights “within” its reservation, and that should include the islands in the river and surrounding waters.

Torruella said the majority opinion relied too heavily on dictionary definitions and not enough on “more persuasive and common sense authority.”

Attorney General Janet T. Mills, whose office defended the state’s position, applauded the decision and said Maine would be cooperative in regulating use of the river going forward.

“We respect and honor the Penobscot Nation’s deep historical and cultural ties with the river and look forward to working with them to preserve the health and vibrancy of this major watershed which is so critical to all the people of Maine,” she said.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: