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Dam Removal Launches Penobscot River Restoration

The demolition of the Great Works Dam, a 200-year-old, thousand-foot-long mass of concrete, timber, cribwork and huge stones, is a key component of the Penobscot River Restoration Project, a $62-million public-private partnership to restore the river and its fisheries while maintaining existing hydroelectric power generation levels on the river.

BRADLEY, Maine – It was a great day to restore a river.

Under a cloudless blue sky on a warm spring day in Maine, scores of people stood on the banks of the Penobscot River and watched heavy rock-smashing tractors roll over a riprap road in the water toward a decrepit concrete fish passage, and begin jack hammering it to pieces. The demolition of the Great Works Dam and the restoration of a free-flowing river from Old Town to the Gulf of Maine had begun.

When the Great Works Dam is completely removed later this year and the downstream Veazie Dam, the dam closest to the ocean, comes down next year, migratory sea-run Atlantic salmon and other native anadromous fish that have been blocked – one might say ethnically cleansed – from reaching their spawning grounds for more than 100 years, will be free to return and reestablish self-propagating populations. The restoration of the endangered Atlantic salmon to their historic home waters will not only create economic and recreational opportunities for the communities along the river and beyond, it will also play a crucial role in restoring the cultural traditions and the physical and spiritual wellbeing of the Penobscot Indian Nation.

“It’s a great day to be indigenous,” Penobscot Indian Nation elder Butch Phillips said in blessing the event. “The ancestors are smiling today.”

The demolition of the Great Works Dam, a 200-year-old, thousand-foot-long mass of concrete, timber, cribwork and huge stones, is a key component of the Penobscot River Restoration Project, a $62-million public-private partnership to restore the river and its fisheries while maintaining existing hydroelectric power generation levels on the river. The project is a unique partnership among tribal, federal and state governments, and industry and conservation groups who have forged an unprecedented alliance to repair the damaged river. Until the riverside event, the partners had raised around $59 million almost equally between private and public contributions. At the event, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Eric Schwaab, Acting Assistant Secretary of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), announced additional contributions of $2.5 and $1 million, respectively, bringing the total funding over the $62 million needed.

Penobscot River Restoration: Honor Song

Representatives of all partners and many of their supporters gathered on the riverbank for the June 11 celebration and later for lunch and an afternoon of speeches, congratulations, interviews, and other activities and displays hosted by the Penobscot Nation at its Indian Island reservation.

For the Penobscot people, who have lived on the river that bears their name for more than 10,000 years, the river and its fish are intricately bound to their identity and existence, Penobscot Chief Kirk Francis said. “Today is a day that will be remembered as a most significant event in reuniting our long-lost fisheries resources with their historic homeland,” Francis said. “Bringing back these lost relatives continues the restoration of ancient natural cycles of creation in a river we have been connected to for thousands of years, and makes us who we are as a people.”

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At 305 miles long, the Penobscot River is the largest river in Maine and the second largest in New England (the Connecticut River is the largest at 407 miles). Penobscot creation stories and oral traditions tell of the river’s salmon and other fish being transformed into Penobscot people. The stories say Klose-kur-beh, the Penobscots’ culture hero (also known as Gluskabe or Glooscap), created the river with its headwaters at the base of sacred Mount Katahdin, Maine’s highest mountain, which in the Penobscot language means “the greatest mountain.” The river flows through the heart of Maine to Penobscot bay, draining 8,570 square miles, or about a quarter of the state.

Former Chief Barry Dana, who sang a ceremonial honor song while Phillips smudged the dignitaries onstage, said the Atlantic salmon is a “canary in a coal mine” symbolizing the health of the Penobscot people. “We are not who we are supposed to be by living a (non-indigenous) culture and having a whole (different) mindset, by eating the wrong foods, living the wrong way in total opposition of our genetic code,” he said. “When these fish come back, when we walk barefoot on the earth or in our moccasins, when we attend ceremony, we’re waking up those genes that are telling us of all the eons, the thousands of years before us that established that way, that consciousness. So these activities here highlight where we need to end up. Just think of all the work that went into this project – it shouldn’t have to be so much work, It should be easy to do what’s right for nature because when nature is right then and only then can we be right.”

Salazar said the day was “a milestone” for river conservation all over the U.S. “Through a historic partnership that exemplifies President Obama’s America’s Great Outdoors initiative, we are reconnecting 1,000 miles of river, restoring vital habitat for fish and wildlife, expanding opportunities for outdoor recreation, and supporting energy production, jobs and economic growth in communities throughout Maine,” he said.

The Penobscot River Restoration Project had its beginnings in the 1990s deregulation of the electric industry when PPL, a Pennsylvania-based energy company, purchased a number of dams and hydroelectric generation plants on the Penobscot River. In approaching the relicensing of the hydroelectric plants, the company, the tribe, the Interior Department, the state and conservation groups began to explore a comprehensive vision for migratory fish passages and ecological restoration of the river. In 2004, the Penobscot River Restoration Trust was formed as a nonprofit organization for the purpose of implementing the restoration project; it includes the Penobscot Indian Nation, federal and state governments, the hydroelectric company, American Rivers, Atlantic Salmon Federation, Maine Audubon, Natural Resources Council of Maine, The Nature Conservancy and Trout Unlimited. Under an agreement reached that year, PPL agreed to sell three dams – the Great Works, the Veazie and the Howland Dam – to the Trust. PPL, in return, was allowed to increase power generation at six other dams along the river, offsetting the losses that would incur at the demolished Veazie and Great Works dams. In 2009, PPL sold most of its hydropower assets other than the three dams promised to the Trust, to Black Bear Hydro Partners, which assumed PPL’s role and now operates and manages the generation projects. The Trust purchased the three dams at the end of 2010 with roughly $25 million in private and public funding.

Like many great efforts, the Penobscot Restoration Project has generated its own legend – the story of John Banks, the director of the Penobscot Nation’s award-winning Department of Natural Resources, and his eagle feather. While the celebration at the Great Works Dam on June 11 was a model of harmonious cooperation and mutual congratulations, there was a time when negotiations among the partners came to a screeching rancorous halt, said John Ames, of Camden, Maine, who attended the Great Works event with his wife Sarah. The couple said they became involved in financially supporting the river restoration through The Nature Conservancy when the Conservancy brought them on a tour of the river and dams. During the tour, the couple heard the story of Banks and his eagle feather. “Everybody was at loggerheads and the project was in serious trouble of going down the tubes. This was in the early days of the project when they had everybody on board but nobody was agreeing on anything,” John Ames said. “John Banks walked into what could have been the last meeting of the project with an eagle feather wrapped in brown paper and he went around the room and tapped everybody assembled on the shoulder with the eagle feather and said, ‘This is not about you, it’s about the river.’ And that turned the negotiations around. John Banks did it. His eagle feather blessing turned the project around.”

Banks, who attended the Great Works event, said the eagle blessing came at a critical juncture in the process. “I just needed to bring people to a point to remind them why we were doing this, so I brought my eagle feather to the meeting and asked for a little bit of time at the beginning,” Banks said. “I did a little ceremony and said some prayer and walked around and touched everybody on the shoulder. I think it made people sit back a little bit and think maybe this wasn’t about them. I didn’t plan it, but it just kind of hit me that something needed to be done at that time.” After that, things started going smoothly, Banks said. “It was just a great bunch of people working with great partners and it just shows what can be accomplished if people take the time to put themselves in somebody else’s shoes and see what everybody needs.”

In addition to decommissioning and removing Great Works and Veazie dams, the project will include the creation of new upstream fish passages at Howland and Milford dams. Once completed, the river restoration will provide access to more than 1,000 miles of historic fish habitat in the river and its tributaries for 11 species of native migratory sea-run fish in addition to Atlantic salmon, including herring, sturgeon, shad, and alewives. But the return of healthy fish stock will also have a multiplier effect, benefiting the entire ecosystem from fish-eating birds like eagles, ospreys and herons to predatory fish in the Gulf of Maine, such as cod and other commercially important species, Schwaab said. “NOAA has long hoped to see the Penobscot’s Atlantic salmon, herring, sturgeon and shad swim freely to their spawning grounds upstream. This will help spur the growth of these fish populations that are vital to the health of the larger Gulf of Maine ecosystem as well as the commercial and recreational fishing it supports,” he said.

The entire Penobscot River Restoration Project will be phased in over several years and is expected to create hundreds of jobs.

Penobscot River Restoration: Blessing by Penobscot Elder Butch Phillips