Last week’s announcement that three dams on the lower Penobscot have been purchased from PPL signifies clearance of one major hurdle in the auspicious plan to restore 1,000 miles of world-class salmon spawning territory. It is the result of a perfect storm of cooperation over many years.
The Penobscot River Restoration Project is a textbook example of how the needs of society and the environment can be balanced by intelligent and creative people. Multiple agencies at every level of government have worked successfully with the Penobscot Nation, nongovernmental organizations of many stripes, and politicians of both parties, to restore our beautiful Penobscot to some of its former glory. About half of the funds for this $50 million project have already been committed from private individuals and groups, the state and federal government — with the expectation of more to follow. Continued years of struggle will still be necessary to perfect the plan, and raise the funds.
This triumphant outcome should be the model for approaching and solving the many huge dilemmas confronting Americans and the world. The energy crisis and our dependence on foreign oil, water quality and supply, global warming and sea level rise, immigration and population control, and world starvation are but a few of the most prominent.
The crow’s nest at the top of The Penobscot Narrows Bridge gives a stunning view of the Penobscot, from where the Atlantic salmon cross over the Continental Shelf, after their long swim from Arctic seas, to the Katahdin area and well beyond, to mating grounds in the silence and privacy of Great North Woods. There is a sense of incredible resonance of the olden times with modern times as we try to bring back the great salmon migrations of the past. There is great “existence value” of salmon and other migratory fish to Americans even if they never drop a line into a salmon pool or walk a stream with a fly rod.
There is also a great resonance with other land preservation projects along the coast such as the Great Pond Mountain Conservation Trust project in the hills in Orland. There is night magic between the very popular Bucksport waterfront-marina project, and Fort Knox shining brightly in counterpoint to the gloriously illuminated cables and transom of the bridge. There is resonance with revitalization of the Bangor-Brewer river-front and other northern communities, by successful pollution reduction. There is cross-resonance with the all the glories up and down the coast, as the river gets cleaned up and opened again to migratory fish populations that feed the Gulf of Maine.
The spawning runs of salmon and many other threatened fish species will benefit enormously from the removal of several dams, which have prevented them from reaching both their spawning grounds and the sea. We are already seeing sturgeon returning to the Penobscot and this summer’s salmon run was double that of recent years, about 2,000.
The celebrated removal of the Edwards Dam in Augusta has shown that natural systems can return from the brink of extinction, if given half a chance. Adult fish and the whole food pyramid, from microorganisms and invertebrates, to elvers and other small-fry, are regenerating even faster than expected.
The Penobscot River system is a fantastic economic and spiritual resource for Maine and its people. Now that the paper industry is sagging, it is time to build a diverse economy that celebrates a clean and fruitful river and our wild North Woods. Part of this will hopefully be the realization that the North Maine Woods could become a world-class wilderness tourist destination if Plum Creek and others motivated by greed can be kept at bay by the Land Use Regulation Commission. Bowdoin economist David Vail has nicely documented that job creation along all Maine’s fantastic corridors of natural beauty can benefit our economy and quality of life far more than a brief spasm of mindless destruction to construct more trophy homes, golf courses, and shopping centers.
The whole panoply of aquatic life in a Penobscot River reborn has “existence value” and charisma beyond measure. We must all continue support at all levels for this worthy project by thanking our Maine congressional delegation and public servants at all levels.
Paul A. Liebow, a physician, lives in Bucksport. He is a Penobscot River ambassador.