A crane lowers a steel arc down toward a stream bed while a worker guides it.
Installing an arch culvert Workers improve fish passage on a stream in Maine. © Robert Bukaty

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$7 Million Federal Award Will Fund Stream Connectivity, Private Road Improvements in Maine

TNC and NRCS celebrate public-private partnership's continued success

A $6,999,768 federal investment from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) will support the Watershed-scale Approach to Restoring Stream Systems (WATRSS) Project, restoring some of Maine’s highest value aquatic networks from fragmentation and degradation by improving road-stream crossings.

Project partners led by The Nature Conservancy in Maine will use an innovative Stream Smart design and installation approach to improve habitat and aquatic organism passage and reduce impacts from increasingly volatile storm flows. With over 11 million acres of Maine forest in private hands, this project is designed to influence stream-friendly management on thousands of miles of aquatic habitat.

The award is part of $330 million in investments in 85 locally driven, public-private partnerships to address climate change, improve the nation’s water quality, combat drought, enhance soil health, support wildlife habitat, and protect agricultural viability. Projects are awarded through the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP). NRCS provides leadership and technical assistance to address natural resource conservation issues on private land.

“We welcome this investment that will support The Nature Conservancy’s effort to improve the ecological health of more than 25,000 square miles of watershed in Maine,” said Senators Susan Collins and Angus King and Representatives Chellie Pingree and Jared Golden in a joint statement. “This project will restore some of our state’s highest value aquatic networks from fragmentation and degradation—the most critical threats to endangered Atlantic salmon and Eastern brook trout habitat—by improving road-stream crossings. By strengthening roadways and municipal infrastructure, this project will also support the forest economy and the safety of Maine’s rural communities. Furthermore, the return of healthier rivers and streams helps local economies by increasing sport fishing and other recreational opportunities.”

The project provides the short-term benefit of construction jobs with long-term benefits that include increased road stability and greater safety throughout Maine’s aging road network. It focuses on waterways that have some of the last endangered Atlantic salmon populations in the United States, as well as critical Eastern brook trout habitat. Fragmented aquatic habitat is identified as a primary threat to both species, degrading healthy stream function and keeping fish from some of the most important spawning and rearing habitat.

TNC will continue working collaboratively with other conservation groups, tribal nations, other major landowners, local roads managers, and state and federal agencies to ensure the proper installation and repair of culverts to improve stream health while also helping communities that count on secure road networks to withstand severe storms. Through this project, TNC and partners also intend to work jointly with municipalities to expand the impact of these benefits beyond private roads to include public road-stream crossings -- ultimately connecting streams at the watershed scale.

“The Natural Resources Conservation Service is excited to provide nearly $7 million for this Regional Conservation Partnership Program project,” said NRCS-Maine State Conservationist Matt Walker. “With the expertise and innovation of The Nature Conservancy leading this important work, the people of Maine – and future generations – will see the positive impacts of this Stream Smart approach on thousands of miles of aquatic habitat throughout the state."

“The WATRSS endeavor will complement the Maine Aquatic Connectivity Restoration Project which has helped restore some of the state’s highest-value aquatic networks from habitat fragmentation and degradation by improving road-stream crossings in 25,000 square miles in Maine,” said Ben Naumann, NRCS-Maine Assistant State Conservationist for Partnerships and Initiatives. “Led by The Nature Conservancy, the Aquatic Connectivity project used Stream Smart design and installation principles to improve habitat and aquatic organism passage throughout the state – reducing impacts of storm flows on structures and habitats. Having the ability to seamlessly continue this connectivity work with The Nature Conservancy and other partners will continue this momentum."

“We are thrilled to be able to join together again with NRCS to build on the success of the current Aquatic Connectivity project, which has re-opened 100 miles of habitat through 59 projects since 2018,” said Kate Dempsey, state director of The Nature Conservancy in Maine. “The WATRSS project will help to make more communities safer from flooding and extreme weather, and will re-open thousands of miles of some of the best aquatic habitat in the East for migrating fish and other wildlife. This is particularly critical as climate change puts increasing pressure on nature and people across Maine.”

About RCPP

Through the Regional Conservation Partnership Program, conservation partners work in collaboration with NRCS to help farmers, ranchers and forest landowners throughout the nation to implement systems that conserve water and soil resources, improve the health of wildlife habitats and increase climate resilience. RCPP partners offer value-added contributions to amplify the impact of RCPP funding. These projects offer impactful and measurable outcomes. Throughout its history, RCPP has leveraged partner contributions of more than $1 for every $1 invested by USDA, resulting in nearly $3 billion collectively invested in natural resource conservation on private lands. The Department anticipates the investments made today will generate at least $440 million in additional conservation funds by communities and other partners.

Partners in the project include the Maine Department of Transportation, Maine Department of Environmental Protection, Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Maine Audubon, the Appalachian Mountain Club, and the Houlton Band of Maliseets. The Project Area includes the last endangered Atlantic salmon listed watersheds and some of the highest quality remaining Eastern brook trout habitat in the United States. Habitat fragmentation is identified as a primary threat in the NOAA Fisheries Atlantic Salmon 5-year Action Plan (2016), NOAA/NMFS Salmon Recovery Plan (2009), as well as the Eastern Brook Trout Joint Venture Conservation Plan (2015).

The Nature Conservancy is a global conservation organization dedicated to conserving the lands and waters on which all life depends. Guided by science, we create innovative, on-the-ground solutions to our world's toughest challenges so that nature and people can thrive together. We are tackling climate change, conserving lands, waters and oceans at an unprecedented scale, providing food and water sustainably and helping make cities more sustainable. Working in 75 countries and territories: 37 by direct conservation impact and 38 through partners, we use a collaborative approach that engages local communities, governments, the private sector, and other partners. To learn more, visit www.nature.org or follow @nature_press on Twitter.