Andy Goode knows that the people involved in large conservation efforts can sometimes exaggerate the impact of their projects. But Goode, the vice president of U.S. Programs for the Atlantic Salmon Federation, says the importance of Monday’s latest announcement by the Penobscot River Restoration Trust shouldn’t be un-derestimated.
“A lot of projects get hyped and over-hyped, but you can’t, I don’t think, over-hype this one,” Goode said on Tuesday.
Monday’s announcement: The Penobscot River Restoration Trust officially took ownership of three dams they bought for $24 million. Two of those dams — at Veazie and Great Works — will be removed. At the third, in Howland, a fish bypass will be built. And after those three projects are completed, a variety of fish species will have access to almost 1,000 miles of habitat that they couldn’t swim to before.
The Atlantic Salmon Federation has been on the ground floor of the Penobscot project since 1999, when it met with representatives of the Penobscot Indian Nation and PPL Corp., the owner of the dams, and began formulating a plan. What they came up with, and what was backed by a large group of federal and state agencies along with conservation groups, was a unique approach that allowed the Penobscot to flow more freely while assuring PPL equal or increased electricity production at its remaining Penobscot dams.
Since then, Goode and hundreds of others have focused their efforts on moving the project forward. And Monday’s announcement, Goode said, was a major milestone.
“This is the first time that I feel like we can take a deep breath,” Goode said. “I’ve always felt like we were swimming upstream a little in this project. And now that we actually own the dams, I sort of feel like we’re swimming downstream. It’s the first time I can take a big, deep breath and say, ‘This project’s going to happen.’”
Since its concept was unveiled, the Penobscot River Restoration Project has been heralded as a potential conservation model for groups around the world. Goode said the project marks a departure from business as usual for his group.
“So much of our work, we’re sliding slowly backward. We’re always fighting something on the river,” Goode said. “It’s a new exotic species. It’s a new dam proposal, or it was taking water out of the rivers or forestry practices. We’re always trying to mitigate and minimize threats to Atlantic salmon populations. Really, this project marks, for the first time, working proactively and gaining back some of the lost habitat.”
Goode said allowing native fish to work their way farther up the Penobscot watershed will have a huge impact on fish stocks in the years to come. And as he points out, Atlantic salmon need all the help they can get.
“[This project] is the biggest thing that’s happened to salmon since those dams were built 200 years ago,” Goode said. “In Maine, 90 to 95 percent of the Atlantic salmon cannot reach their historic spawning habitat. I don’t think people realize how much spawning habitat has been lost.”
While salmon are expected to benefit, the Penobscot River Restoration Project is not a salmon-centric effort. Goode said that’s fine with him, and reflects a new understanding of river ecosystems and how they work.
“We’ve known for a while that working at the watershed level, looking at the whole river as opposed to fighting one little issue at a time, makes the most sense,” Goode said. “Single-species focus on Atlantic salmon hasn’t worked for a hundred years, and here’s a project where we’ve been able to move beyond salmon and really leverage limited resources for Atlantic salmon into a much broader effort to restore a river.”
Goode was willing to celebrate Monday’s milestone, but said it’s important for Mainers to realize that their work isn’t done: Dam removal is scheduled to begin in 2011, and he says for the next four years, bulldozers and cranes will be a part of the Penobscot landscape as the work is completed. Before that can happen, however, there’s a little matter of money.
The Penobscot River Restoration Trust has raised $7 million toward dam removal and the fish bypass work, but much more is needed.
“We still need to raise roughly $18 million, so the heavy lifting isn’t over yet,” Goode said. “We now own the dams, so we’re in control of our own destiny a little bit more.”
And eventually, new recreational fisheries will open up, Goode says. American shad will flourish. Striped bass should become more plentiful. River herring will rush up the river in huge numbers, providing the forage base that so many other species depend upon.
“Atlantic salmon? Who knows?” Goode said. “But if we’re ever going to get recreational fishing back for Atlantic salmon [in Maine], it’s going to be on the Penobscot. And it’s going to be because of this project. The only hope for Atlantic salmon fishermen is the Penobscot project.”