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Maine

The Penobscot River: A Model Conservation Partnership


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Story Highlights
  • In one of the world's most ambitious river restoration efforts, the Conservancy is helping restore the Penobscot River for the benefit of people and the environment.
  • While some said such a partnership wasn't possible years ago, the project now inspires river revitalization throughout New England and beyond.
  • Your support helps the Conservancy and Penobscot River Restoration Trust restore more than 1,000 miles of river habitat.

By Darci Palmquist

The best hope for bringing back Atlantic salmon along the entire East Coast of the United States has gotten brighter — and with it, prospects for better management of rivers with dams everywhere. 

A partnership along Maine's Penobscot River has emerged as the premier example of how everyone — local residents, energy companies and environmentalists — can win in a sensitive and complicated river restoration process.

As an important member of the partnership, The Nature Conservancy was key in securing federal funds for the project and is part of the scientific team assessing the restoration benefits of the project.

And now the world is paying attention. From Maine to Washington and China to Australia, people are looking at the Penobscot as a model for how to bring together diverse interests to focus on restoration that takes into account the entire river basin and all its uses — from fish production to recreation to hydropower. With your continued support, we can advance the Penobscot River restoration project.

“This project has people all over the country and the world thinking about new ways to address river management,” says Mike Tetreault, executive director of The Nature Conservancy in Maine.

A Unique Partnership Achieves the Impossible

The unlikely partners of the Penobscot River restoration include: one power company, one Native American tribe, six environmental groups, and numerous state and federal agencies and riverside communities. 

Together, they have put in motion a plan to restore more than 1,000 miles of river habitat for the benefit of people and the environment.

The plan calls for the removal of the two dams closest to the ocean. A third dam further upstream will be decommissioned and a state-of-the-art fish bypass built around it. At the same time, energy production will be increased at other dams, providing the ability to maintain current hydropower levels.

While the entire project is a few years away from completion, it will  reach an important milestone in June 2012 when removal work begins on the Great Works Dam.

Another key milestone occurred in December 2010 when the partners purchased the three dams.

“This is a tremendous achievement made possible by years of collective hard work by our many partners,” says Laura Rose Day, executive director of the Penobscot River Restoration Trust, the nonprofit established to coordinate and carry out the project. “Now we can move forward toward the common goal of rebalancing fisheries and hydropower on the Penobscot.”

The Last Best Hope for Sea-run Fish

Thousands of salmon and millions of alewife and shad once pulsed through the Penobscot. Today, just a small fraction of those numbers can be found. And scientists believe the Penobscot represents the best hope for recovery of Atlantic salmon along the entire East Coast of the United States. 

“All the other major rivers for these fish have just crumbled,” says Josh Royte, a scientist and conservation planner with The Nature Conservancy in Maine. “The Penobscot has the most habitat with the most potential for bringing large mixed-migrations of fish back.”

“2010 was a good year for salmon here — we had over 2,000, one of the best runs in 30 years,” he adds. “But after the dams are removed, we’re hoping to see 10,000 or more salmon, millions of alewife and tens of thousands of shad and blueback herring in this river.”

Royte is one of a team of scientists working to ensure there is good baseline data for the river for later comparison. Compiling extensive data now will help them monitor the success of the dam removals and provide important measures for decisions along the way — such as what time of the year the dams should be removed so that salmon are disrupted as little as possible.

While salmon are the all-stars of the river, other migratory fish like sturgeon, striped bass and especially the river herring may be even more important. As these fish return, other species on land and in water will benefit.

And scientists are hopeful that the Penobscot effort could help marine fisheries recover, too. The Penobscot empties into the Gulf of Maine, where cod and other groundfish species have declined — in part, theorize scientists, because the river herring they have long fed on have been disappearing.

River Restoration that Benefits Everyone

Perhaps no one values the river more than the people who have been living alongside it the longest — the Penobscot Indian Nation.

“This river has been the center of who we are as a people for thousands and thousands of years,” says John Banks, director of natural resources for the Penobscot Indian Nation. “It’s a part of us.”

All that changed when industrialization brought mills and dams to the river, causing fish populations to plummet and the remaining fish to become contaminated with mercury and other toxins. As a result, tribal members have lost a key part of their way of life.

But with a plan in place to remove the two dams closest to the ocean, Banks now sees a glimmer of hope for the river ecosystem and the cultural and spiritual future of his people.

“We look forward to someday being able to use the river like our ancestors did,” says Banks. “Things like eel trapping and salmon spearing — we haven’t been able to pass these traditional activities down to new generations.”

And restoration of the river will benefit people far and wide. Waterfront revitalization efforts are planned by cities along the Penobscot, and increased access for recreation like kayaking, white-water rafting and fly-fishing will bring economic and cultural value to these communities. 

A Global Model for River Management

The Penobscot River basin covers one-third of the state of Maine and its restoration is among the largest such projects in the country. But the ripple effects of this project are reaching far beyond the borders of Maine and the United States. 

For countries like China and Australia, dam removals are hot topics. But in developing countries like Colombia, Thailand and Zimbabwe, the construction of dams is still important as a way to address renewable energy needs.

In both cases, the Penobscot River restoration is proving to be a global example for how collaboration can balance hydropower, river life and ecology for the benefit of people and nature. Not to mention that the project came about against heavy odds.

“A lot of people said they never believed we could pull it off,” says Tetreault. “Now people are taking us seriously. And the partnership has raised $25 million, so we’re walking the talk.”

But there’s still more money to be raised, says Kate Dempsey, the Conservancy’s senior policy advisor in Maine. Dempsey led the charge to raise the first $25 million needed to buy the dams by engaging the interest of federal funding sources which were matched with private funds. Now she and the partnership are focusing on raising the funds needed to implement the dam removal.

“The conversation in Washington right now is all about energy, so the fact that this project keeps energy production while gaining habitat benefits — that’s important and very relevant today,” says Dempsey. 

Darci Palmquist is a science writer for The Nature Conservancy. 

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