Common Ground, Common Good

How unlikely partners came together on a Maine river

Decades of dam building had decimated migratory fish populations that had long sustained local wildlife and people on the Penobscot River. After years of contentious battles, local stakeholders struck a deal. Today, for the first time in 200 years, river life is rebounding. And the power company has not lost any hydropower generation.

By , Op-ed contributor

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    New and enhanced whitewater kayaking opportunities are emerging on the Penobscot River in Maine following dam removal.
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For several thousand springtimes, Atlantic salmon have made the several-thousand-mile swim from the food-rich waters off Greenland to their natal rivers along the Northeast coast to finally ascend upriver to spawning grounds. Historical accounts from the Penobscot Indian Nation tell of fish so thick a person could walk across streams on their silver backs.

Then, about 200 years of pollution, log drives, commercial overfishing, and dam building along the Penobscot River, Maine’s largest river system, decimated the fisheries. Hydroelectric dams had a particularly dramatic effect on migratory fish, severing the ocean from critical spawning grounds and disrupting this ancient life cycle for salmon and billions of other fish that had long sustained local wildlife and people. In 2009, the Penobscot River salmon was listed as an endangered species.

The 1980s and 1990s were defined by contentious battles over dam building that fueled distrust and divided communities – resulting in little improvement in hydropower generation and no hope for fishery restoration. 

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That is, until 1999, when a confluence of events set the stage for a new discussion – and groundbreaking cooperation that has drawn national and international attention. Over four years, representatives from the federal and state government, the Penobscot Indian tribe, an electric company, and conservation groups hashed out a hard-won agreement to restore sea-run fisheries while maintaining hydropower on the Penobscot River.

Opponents become partners

With electricity deregulation in 1999, an out-of-state company bought the lower Penobscot dams. Against the backdrop of two recent federal rulings – regulators had denied a bid to build a new dam on the Penobscot and ordered the removal of another on the nearby Kennebec River – one of the company’s dams was up for relicensing. Wanting to avoid the divisive battles of the past, local staff invited the Penobscot tribe to talk, and soon conservation and resource management groups joined. Many began considering the Penobscot River’s future with renewed hope. But the odds were stacked against a deal, and distrust from old battles was palpable.

America’ s rivers mean many things to many people. So the perspectives of people from all walks of life were brought to that negotiating room: Penobscot tribal members; riverside landowners; birdwatchers; salmon anglers; paddlers; power company representatives; conservation groups; local businesses; and state, local, and federal government agencies. I represented the conservation groups’ perspective as the various parties hashed out the possibilities.

At one point during the talks, it looked as if things would fall apart. John Banks, tribal member and natural resources director of the Penobscot Nation, asked for a few minutes. Removing an eagle feather from a cloth wrap, he circled the table, laying the feather on each shoulder. He reminded us that, no matter whom we served, we were also responsible for being the voice for all the creatures of the river – the birds, the fish, and all of the people as well. The common goal had to be the health of the river.

The room was silent. We paused. Then we got back to work. Nearly two years later, in 2004, we celebrated the Penobscot River Restoration Agreement, which vastly improved access to 1,000 miles of habitat for sea-run fish while maintaining hydropower production.

Under the deal, the power company agreed to sell three of its dams to the Penobscot River Restoration Project, which I now direct. In exchange, the pro-restoration groups agreed to support the hydro company’s proposal for increased power generation at other dams on the river system. We removed two dams nearest the sea in 2012 and 2013, and a fish bypass will be constructed around a third dam.    

Today, for the first time in nearly two centuries, river life is rebounding. Atlantic salmon, alewives, and other migratory fish swim freely upstream past where two large dams once stood. Local and national partners have stepped up to help with the ongoing execution of the restoration project. Hope has been renewed for local paddling, tourism, and fishing businesses. Penobscot tribal members can now paddle traditional birch bark canoes to the sea as their ancestors did. And the power company has not lost any hydropower generation, but even produces more in some cases.

Learning to listen

What we learned is that, despite seemingly insurmountable differences, people can envision a better future. People like Barbara Wilson. Despite confessing that she’s never been fond of fish, eight years ago, she invited me to her home perched high above the Penobscot River to talk about a plan to remove dams. As I entered the kitchen, the 1,000-foot-wide, 23-foot-tall, 200-year-old Veazie dam dominated the room, the river falling in sheets, framed by expansive bay windows. Misty-eyed, Barbara asked me, gesturing toward the scene, “Do you know what my grandchildren call that? Grandma’s waterfall.” 

Two simple words, passionately spoken, that could have been a barrier more impenetrable than the dam itself, portending the deep-seated emotionally charged views that people can feel on an issue. Instead, Barbara served tea and cookies, listened, asked questions, and told me her stories. She made her concerns clear, but kept an open mind. Today, the dam is gone, but she loves her new view; her granddaughter does, too. And we are friends.   

Dams are apt metaphors for the seemingly intractable issues that can divide us, and the Penobscot project is a lesson in the power of people who are willing to set aside self-interest for the common good.

Visitors of all stripes, from large corporations to indigenous people, come to the Penobscot from all across the United States and the globe wondering what they can take home to help heal their own rivers – and divisions. I tell them that every situation is unique, so every solution will look different, but the lesson is universal: Finding common ground takes hard work and principled compromise, but above all, it takes a willingness to listen and learn from each other, to try to understand each other’s perspectives, and to really work together. It takes persistence, but it is possible.

Laura Rose Day is executive director of the Penobscot River Restoration Trust. A list of the organization's partners can be found here. You can also follow them on Facebook, Vimeo, and Twitter (@PenobscotTrust).

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