In 1604, French explorer Samuel de Champlain sailed up the Penobscot River in search of gold, timber, furs and fish. He wasn’t the first. Portuguese explorer Estevan Gomez beat him by almost 80 years — and the Wabanaki by 10,000.
By the mid-1800s, a new breed of explorer came to the Penobscot region — naturalist Henry David Thoreau, a young Theodore Roosevelt, Percival Baxter, artists galore and many more. They came in search of solitude, a glimpse of the untrammeled past and ultimately, themselves, as later reflected in their writings, sketches and deeds. They made the Penobscot a legendary land of rivermen and sailors, farmers and fishermen, millworkers and merchants.
Champlain’s voyage marked the beginning of an historic transition for the river and its vast watershed, for over the next 400 years settlement and resource extraction would fundamentally reshape the river and its surrounding lands.
Today, we live in another time of historic transition.
The Penobscot drains nearly one-quarter of Maine, from its sources in the high peaks of Baxter State Park to the rugged shores of the Atlantic. For over a century, unbridled extraction cleared the forests and degraded the river and its fisheries. By the 1970s, the river was all but dead as decades of municipal sewage and industrial waste took their toll.
But the land and water proved resilient.
The federal Clean Water Act of 1972, championed by Maine Sen. Edmund Muskie, would be the first step toward rebirth, strengthened by state-level shoreland zoning protections and recent dam removal efforts. These protections, spanning decades, have turned a liability into an asset, and the river is well into its rebirth.
It is time for the communities along the Penobscot River to experience the same.
We face many challenges, from aging demographics and declining rural populations, to endemic poverty and strained municipal budgets. And in just the last few years, we’ve lost three of five pulp and paper mills along the river.
Communities across America struggle with similar challenges, yet few straddle rivers of legendary renown such as the Penobscot. And fewer still possess the natural and cultural amenities that we too often take for granted.
Consider our assets: an international airport and interstate highway system, the University of Maine, Eastern Maine Medical Center, millions of acres of healthy forests and working farms, the Appalachian Trail and Baxter State Park, the river and bay, hundreds of miles of coastline, a recently approved development plan for the Moosehead Lake region, and potential plans for a new national park and national recreation area along the river’s headwaters.
We’ve made significant progress already. Bangor has witnessed more than $200 million in public and private investment along its waterfront. The University of Maine’s Sustainability Solutions Initiative has paired students and faculty with community leaders to tackle tough local problems. Residents across the region are actively engaged in hundreds of efforts to protect our quality of place while leveraging natural and cultural assets to promote economic development — sustainable development that strengthens rather than degrades the very qualities that drew us here and make us stay, and may increasingly attract new jobs and residents to the region.
Indeed, as noted by the Governor’s Council on Quality of Place, Maine’s natural amenities “are the state’s chief economic asset because in today’s economy the greatest competition is for people.”
Over millennia, the Penobscot River has proven its resilience. It is our communities that are being tested.
Those who came before us used the river for fish and transport, and they harnessed its falls for industrial and residential power. They shaped a landscape and a way of life, and they did it to meet the needs of their time.
We, too, must adapt and view the river differently.
We must leverage our economic, cultural and natural assets as the new engines of economic growth. Indeed, in a state that’s “open for business,” our first task is to understand what it is that we have to offer. The second is to envision a future that leverages these assets for sustained prosperity. It’s not just a good idea — our future depends on it.
Robert J. Lilieholm is E.L. Giddings professor of forest policy at the University of Maine.