INDIAN ISLAND, Maine - Nature insights of the Penobscot Indian Nation are leading a coalition in a program to restore the river that bears its name, in one of the nation's largest efforts to bring back the sea-runs of fish that once thrived there.
The plan, recently announced to national acclaim, unites the tribe with environmental groups and a major hydropower corporation in supporting removal of several dams that block Atlantic salmon and 10 other fish species from reaching their historic spawning grounds. For most of the fish, runs are now at all-time lows. Hopes are high that the compromise, which also allows continued power generation on a branch of the river, will begin to produce a turn-around within a decade.
The Penobscot River is the largest in Maine, draining 8,570 square miles and supporting the Penobscot Nation for thousands of years. Today the Penobscot nation occupies Indian Island in the middle of the river upstream from Orono and Bangor. On a cold November day, the rain-swollen Penobscot River showed its power as it poured over a dam on the road to the reservation, throwing up a curtain of mist. But the fish that once sustained the tribe have been blocked downstream for more than a century by a series of hydroelectric dams.
The driving force in the restoration program is the tribal insight into the inter-relation of the river's species, said Clem Fay, fisheries manager for the Penobscot Nation. Fay, who has worked for the Penobscot Tribal Natural Resources department for 16 years, told Indian Country Today that the turning point in designing the project was the realization that it should restore all 11 species that once teemed in the river, not just the Atlantic salmon.
Tribal oral traditions coincided with his own scientific research into the ecological interactions of the multitude of species, said Fay. "That's one reason I've worked here so long," he said.
"I did a lot of historical research on what the original species were, not only salmon but other migrating fish," said Fay. He said he looked not only at historical and oral accounts but also at archaeology. He said he was astounded to find that only 160 years ago, the river supported 11 species of migrating fish.
"There was plenty of evidence in digs around the river of the remains of sturgeon, shad, alewives," he said. Other species include blueback herring, American eels, smelt, striped bass and tomcod.
"The sturgeon," said Fay," are spiritually important to the tribe." But all the species, even the lowly alewives and the bass that compete with introduced sports species, interacted for a rich ecology, he said. The migrating alewives provided food for ocean cod and also supported a teeming offshore fishery in the Gulf of Maine, he said.
The runs upstream also brought biomass inland, he said, supporting wildlife through the watershed. The lack of this biomass, he speculated, might be one reason for the lack of success in reintroducing salmon runs in smaller free-flowing Maine rivers.
The understanding of these inter-relations, said Fay, tipped the goal of the river restoration effort from a tweaking of the salmon runs around the series of hydro-electric dams to a full-scale effort to remove at least some of them. This effort, he said, took a major step forward when a national power corporation, PPL of Allentown, Penn., bought out the local hydropower company in October 1999.
In lengthy negotiations, PPL worked out a deal with the environmental coalition to sell three of its dams on the main trunk of the Penobscot River. The coalition agreed to raise $25 million to buy the dams, with the aim of removing two. In return, PPL kept its hydroelectric dams on a side branch of the river, and the environmental groups agreed to support upgrades to improve their power output. The compromise means that PPL would keep its power output and staffing level intact, but it would remove two main obstacles to the salmon run between Bangor and the Penobscot reservation on Indian Island.
Removal of the two, the Veazie and Great Works dams, said Fay, would restore 100 percent of the run of most historic species, and the coalition would pursue a "state-of-the-art fish bypass" at the upstream Howland Dam for the Atlantic salmon.
According to the coalition, the Veazie Dam above Bangor had virtually eliminated Penobscot fishing rights for 100 years by blocking the runs of the native species.
The coalition and PPL announced the "conceptual agreement" on the project with great fanfare on Oct. 6. The participants will agree on a non-profit corporation that will have a five-year option to purchase the three dams for $25 million. After gaining regulatory approvals, the non-profit would then raise funds to remove the two, very likely with the Army Corps of Engineers. The removals would probably take place between 2006 and 2010.
"Words may not describe what this restoration project means to me and my people," said Barry Dana, governor of the Penobscot Nation.
"The Penobscot River Valley has been home to the Penobscot Indian Nation since time immemorial," he said. "We are inextricably tied to the Penobscot River through a cultural, physical and spiritual relationship that runs in our veins as the original inhabitants of this region.
"Our ancestors have witnessed the destruction and degradation of this precious resource by entities that did not fully understand the long-term impacts of their decisions.
"This restoration effort gives me great hope. Hope that society better understands in this day and age the need to look into the future as we make decisions today. Hope that, like the blood in our veins, the waters of the Penobscot River will become healthier. Hope that future generations of all peoples may benefit from a restored riverine ecosystem that has sustained life for thousands of years.
"It is time that we, as a society, begin to repay the Penobscot River for all that she has provided for such a long time."
Lawrence E. De Simone, PPL executive vice president for Supply, called the agreement "truly a win-win situation for PPL, for the environment, for the Penobscot Indian Nation and for local businesses that will benefit from a restored fish run."
Fay said that the ultimate goal was to restore the ability of the tribe to take fish for subsistence and (spiritual) sustenance. "If before that," he said, "Indians are able to catch salmon and sturgeon to revive their ceremonies, I will feel I've been successful."