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Reopening the Legendary Penobscot River

New Book details how organizations came together to create a model for ecological restoration

November 10, 2020 ​—In June 2016, an Atlantic salmon swam through the town of Howland bound for upriver spawning grounds that had been blocked for nearly two centuries. The historic event followed the remarkable removal of long-standing dams and heralded the reopening of the Penobscot, reenergizing the legendary river with wildlife, fish, and recreational activity to levels not seen in generations.

From the Mountains to the Sea, a new book written by Peter Taylor and published by Maine-based Islandport Press, tells the inside story of how an unlikely alliance of people and organizations—including the Atlantic Salmon Federation, Natural Resources Council of Maine, The Nature Conservancy, and the Penobscot Nation—acquired and removed human-made dams so once stagnant and polluted waters could again run free.

The book gives a behind-the-scenes look at the innovative approach that led to the river’s restoration with no net loss of hydropower. “The Penobscot River Restoration Project is by far the most important conservation project the Penobscot Nation has worked on in recent times,” says John Banks, Director of Natural Resources for the Penobscot Nation. “For the tribe, this project represents much more than a fisheries and hydropower improvement effort. By ecologically re-connecting the watershed with the sea, this project repairs an age-old cycle that allowed the tribe to sustain itself for thousands of years.”

“In an era of global fish declines, the rebounding fisheries of the Penobscot clearly demonstrates we have the ability to save our sea-run fisheries from extinction if we are willing to address the root problems, such as dams, that have caused the declines,” says Andrew Goode, VP of US Operations for the Atlantic Salmon Federation.

The book, scheduled for release December 11 and developed in cooperation with the Penobscot River Restoration Trust, draws on interviews with more than fifty people who worked on the years-long efforts. It details the challenges, compromises, and key turning points of the effort which ultimately came to serve as a global model for large-scale ecosystem restoration.

"Globally, rivers face major challenges," says Kate Dempsey, state director of The Nature Conservancy in Maine. "Monitored populations of migratory freshwater fish have declined 76 percent in the past fifty years, weakening connected ecosystems and fisheries that feed millions of people. That's another reason the Penobscot River project is so important: it has become an international beacon of hope and learning for how challenges from dams can be addressed, informing restoration all around the world."

The Penobscot River Restoration Project featured seven member organizations, as well as key partners including federal and state agencies and private companies. The members of the Trust are: American Rivers, Atlantic Salmon Federation, Maine Audubon, Natural Resources Council of Maine, Penobscot Nation, The Nature Conservancy, and Trout Unlimited.

“The remarkable recovery of the Penobscot River is a testament to the powerful change that can happen when people come together from a wide variety of perspectives, bound by common purpose,” says Lisa Pohlmann, CEO of the Natural Resources Council of Maine. “We have seen from experience on the Penobscot, as well as the Kennebec, that freeing rivers from dams quickly brings back the fish that need to spawn in freshwater, and also can benefit riverfront communities. It’s a win for people and nature.”

Author Peter Taylor is president of Waterville Consulting in Harpswell. A graduate of Williams College and the University of California, Santa Barbara, he has worked as a magazine editor, science writer and photographer, and a freelance writer. For more than twenty years, Taylor has specialized in telling stories of ecology and conservation.

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