Some of the people working to revive Atlantic salmon in eastern Maine got a rare chance to show off their handiwork Monday to the head of a federal agency that has funneled millions of dollars into local stream restoration projects.
Arlen Lancaster, chief of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, praised the cooperative effort among nonprofit groups, government agencies and private landowners to improve stream and river habitat in Down East Maine.
“This is something we have heard about at the national level, and really it’s one of our success stories,” said Lancaster.
With an annual budget of $3.2 billion, NRCS works with landowners and other partners on projects that improve the environment while supporting sustainable agriculture.
Lancaster’s program has funded more than $1.7 million in projects in Washington County alone since 2006. On Monday, he visited two projects that improved conditions for endangered salmon as well as Maine’s largest blueberry growers.
At the larger of the two projects, crews replaced a simple, wooden bridge over the Pleasant River with a modern, aluminum archway span. The old bridge forced trucks loaded with blueberries, timber or even pesticides to make two sharp turns at the bottom of a steep valley while approaching the narrow bridge.
“You had an accident waiting to happen,” said Ragnar Kamp, general manager of Cherryfield Foods.
Dirt and debris washed into the river, muddying one of the best spots for juvenile Atlantic salmon in the Pleasant, said Colby Bruchs, a biologist with the Maine Department of Marine Resources. Salmon, which are protected by the federal Endangered Species List in Down East rivers, need clear, gravelly stream bottoms.
The deck of the new bridge at Crebo Crossing is at least 7 feet higher than the now-defunct wooden bridge, is wider and does not require as much maneuvering for the large trucks entering the valley.
The roughly $170,000 project was funded with about $105,000 from NRCS. Cherryfield Foods paid most of the rest of the cost.
The second project — on Jasper Wyman land near Deblois — was more typical of the type of work done with NRCS funding. Crews replaced a crumbling steel culvert with a metal arch that allows the stream to flow naturally under the road.
The old culvert was so inadequate that several acres of grass and woodlands on one side of the road were permanently flooded, harming salmon by creating prime habitat for non-native fish and raising acidity levels in the stream.
Both projects were spearheaded by the nonprofit group Project S.H.A.R.E. that has conducted dozens of stream restoration and habitat protection projects Down East, many with NRCS funding.
Paul Santavy, manager of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Craig Brook National Fish Hatchery in East Orland, described Atlantic salmon as being “on the edge of disappearing” in Down East rivers.
Adult salmon returns are up on Maine rivers this year. But young salmon need good habitat for the species to thrive, he said.
“Projects like this … are really essential to repairing the habitat,” Santavy told Lancaster.
Changes to NRCS’ programs included in the recent Farm Bill passed by Congress may make it harder for some stream restoration projects to receive federal funding, although both sites visited Monday still would have been eligible.
But Lancaster said he was impressed by the collaboration in Maine. “This is the type of cooperation that we are going to need to be successful,” he said.