Maine tribe members and allies sing songs during a peaceful protest in Bangor in November 2016. Credit: Ashley L. Conti / BDN

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Charles F. Gauvin of New Gloucester was CEO of Trout Unlimited from 1991 to 2010. He also served as Maine Audubon’s executive director and now works with land trusts and philanthropists on land conservation projects in Maine.

Tribal sovereignty, the goal of a bill the Maine Legislature recently deferred to next year, deserves the support of all Mainers, including the state’s many avid sportsmen. Maine’s Indigenous People, the Wabanaki, should have authority over natural resources, including protection of water and air quality and management of fish and game on tribal lands.

Some might oppose tribal sovereignty for that reason, seeing Indigenous resource management as a potential threat. In reality, we should welcome it as a step toward land justice — for the Wabanaki Nations and everyone who enjoys Maine’s woods and waters.

In my professional life, I have had a role in conserving some of Maine’s most iconic resources, and as a lifelong sportsman I have been privileged to be able to fish or hunt anywhere in our beautiful state. Wherever I go — even on the land I own — I know I am in places once occupied by people who have been here for over 12,000 years. I may hold a clear legal title or have an undisputed right to use other people’s land, but in the grand scheme of things, I am an interloper.

I wonder why, in all its forms, the iconic Maine outdoor experience has, until recently, involved so little recognition of the Wabanaki presence. There is not a happy explanation. I’ll leave aside the grim details; suffice it to say that our forebears got the land, and the Wabanaki, who lost 98 percent of their population, were left, as cruel reminders of dispossession, with all those Native place names.

How to right that wrong — and all those wrongs that followed — is Maine’s single major environmental justice challenge. As we sportsmen think about our role in meeting that challenge, we should consider the deep and profound relationship that the Wabanaki have with Maine’s natural resources and how the Wabanaki perspective can inform our own relationship with Maine’s outdoors. The Wabanaki are the sole human link between Maine’s primeval past and its climate-challenged present. We have much to learn from them.

Recently, land conservation groups and Wabanaki representatives have been exploring ways to build trust and engage in the co-management of conservation lands, as steps toward land justice. Those discussions have made it clear that a major obstacle is the 1980 Maine Indian Land Claims Settlement Act, which grew out of lawsuits the Wabanaki filed to recover over 12 million acres.

The land claims legislation eventually resulted in the transfer of some land back to the Wabanaki, while also creating a number of new problems by denying access to federal programs that benefit other Native Americans. Most critically, it left the Wabanaki with self-governance rights well short of the sovereign status enjoyed by other federally recognized tribes, including environmental protection and wildlife management authority on tribal lands. It’s time to fix those and other problems.

In my view, addressing the moral imperative of land justice and sovereignty should take precedence over any theoretical concerns about Indigenous resource management. As the CEO of Trout Unlimited, I worked with tribes in the western U.S. on Pacific salmon restoration and with the Penobscot Indian Nation to restore fish passage in the Nation’s namesake watershed. I saw firsthand the value of Native American approaches to fish and wildlife conservation.

Let’s not deceive ourselves; it’s not as though we and our European forebears have always done the right thing by Maine’s lands and waters.

Across Maine, we have at least as much to learn from Wabanaki management of natural resources as the Wabanaki have to gain or lose from what they do with the lands that are theirs. The dialogue between the Wabanaki and land conservation groups is a model for trust building and an even exchange of ideas. Extending its reach can only allay any lingering concerns among sportsmen.

Achieving land justice for Maine’s Wabanaki is not only a moral imperative, it is also a way of informing and strengthening every Maine sportsman’s relationship with the land. Affirming Wabanaki sovereignty is a necessary and timely step toward the larger societal goal of land justice. Maine’s sportsmen — and all Maine people — should support it.