Historic Maine bargain opens way for return of Atlantic salmon runs

Wide-ranging agreement signed on Monday may set precedent for restoring rivers in other states.

It was a historic day for the Atlantic salmon.

In an unprecedented move, a coalition that includes an Indian tribe, environmentalists, government, and a power company agreed Monday to open 500 miles of the Penobscot River watershed to the en- dangered salmon and 10 other species of migrating fish.

Two old dams on the lower Penobscot River will be demolished. Another dam will be overhauled to include a fish bypass.

The agreement to open and restore the Penobscot, Maine's most important river, came after four years of talks. One partici-pant called it a win-win agreement for everyone. At the same time, all sides had to give up something valuable.

"We've been fighting these dams for 20 years, and we've almost never been happy with the results," says coalition member Jeff Reardon of the Virginia-based nonprofit Trout Unlimited. "Here we had a choice - keep fighting and losing, or sit down and talk. We sat down, and we did make concessions, but the overall result has been better than what we've achieved through the courts in 20 years."

The plan would undo the consequences of two centuries of Maine dam building. It would demolish two old dams, the Great Works at Old Town and the Veazie Dam above Bangor. The Howland at West Enfield would get a fish bypass.

Comprehensive plan

Though nearly 590 US dams have been demolished in the US in recent years, they've gone down piecemeal - the casualties of individual court battles. Mainers say that never to their knowledge has any community worked together to enact such a comprehensive plan to save a valuable ecosystem - while retaining 90 percent of its power generating capacity.

The partnership, known as the Penobscot River Restoration Project, includes the PPL Corporation (owner of the three dams), the Penobscot Nation, several state and federal agencies and a number of natural resources organizations.

The dams had become accepted fixtures in communities here.

For half a century, Connie and George Cormier have fallen asleep to the hiss of water rolling over the Veazie Dam. When they bought their house on the bluffs of Maine's Penobscot River, nearly every man in town worked at operating the dam. The river was so full of salmon then that in spawing season, the Cormiers say, they'd literally jump into your canoe.

Nobody fishes salmon in these waters anymore, Mrs. Cormier says, and the generations of Veazie men who spent their lives holding back the river are all but gone, victims of a mechanized age.

The consortium that made the river agreement hopes it will aid the comeback of wild salmon on the eastern seaboard, and perhaps provide a model for restoring diminished salmon populations out West. The collaboration might also suggest a way, participants say, for environmental and commercial interests nationwide to strike liveable compromises.

Sacrifice was part of this deal.

Everyone gave up something

Not only did PPL, the power company, lose Veazie, Great Works, and Howland, but the Penobscot Nation, one of the few tribes in the United States still living on its ancestral land, agreed to see 10 of its 5,000 reservation acres flooded when a dam upstream is modernized to compensate for lost power.

"For us, 10 acres is a loss. If we were the Navajo Nation, that occupies ... 1.5 million acres, 10 acres wouldn't be as much of an impact," says John Banks, natural resources director for the Penobscot Nation. "But my ancestors have been fishing salmon here for 10,000 years. Today tribal members are unable to practice a significant aspect of our culture in any meaningful way because of the absence of fish in the region, and because the remaining fish are contaminated." For the chance to restore that tradition, he says, even something as precious as tribal land may be worth the sacrifice.

Before Maine's first dams went up two centuries ago, wild Atlantic salmon by the tens of thousands reportedly rushed up the Penobscot each year. Today, fewer than a thousand make the annual trip. Area paper mills and other industries contributed to the salmon's decline. But in recent years, dumping restrictions and fishing regulations have partially restored the state's waterways.

The major remaining culprits in the Maine salmon population's decline, authorities say, are the state's more than 1,000 dams.

Efforts to remove old dams have sprung up across the country in recent years. In 2002, the Washington-based nonprofit American Rivers counted 586 dams recently demolished across the US. Most of those have been small; only the 1999 removal of the Edwards Dam on Maine's Kennebec River compares in scale with Veazie. That project is now thought by area environmentalists to have been an unqualified success, says state Natural Resource Council's Pete Didisheim. Ms. Day says the river now teems with life.

Still, salmon are in danger of extinction in almost all of Maine's waterways. Since 1994, fishing bans on the Penobscot have put on hold a nearly century-old tradition there. A 20-year member of his local "salmon club," Mr. Cormier remembers it: Every year, the first Maine salmon caught would be sent by fast train to the president.

The White House delivery was a point of pride, and PRRP hopes one day to see salmon runs sufficiently recovered that it can be restored.

Pricetag: $25 million

The coalition that won the agreement will pay the power company $25 million for the dams. PPL also gets the right to boost energy output from its other six dams in Maine.

Some of the others signing the agreement were American Rivers, the Atlantic Salmon Federation, Trout Unlimited, and the Natural Reources Council of Maine. The dams would be purchased between 2007 and 2010.

Mr. Reardon of Trout Unlimited says: "It's not in [the power company's] job description to talk about removing dams, but they did it. And I've never in my life tried to think how best to generate more power, but here I did. And it worked out."

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