AUGUSTA — Representatives from the state’s major conservation and sportsman’s groups gathered in the rain along the banks of the Kennebec River Wednesday to formally inaugurate the Kennebec River Initiative, a collaborative effort to preserve and promote the waterway.
State Deputy Conservation Commissioner Karin Tilberg said the groups — including the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, Maine Rivers and the Natural Resources Council of Maine — have been working behind the scenes for two years.
For much of the next year, Tilberg said, members of the initiative will reach out to people, businesses and communities along the river “to learn their concerns for the river and their hopes and dreams, along with some specific questions about access to the river, revitalization ideas and cultural and historic concepts.”
She credited Clinton “Bill” Townsend, president of Maine Rivers, with coming up with a similar concept more than 30 years ago. Townsend said he approached the state while the river was still very polluted and filled with annual log drives.
“When I’d be fishing back then, I’d dread getting even one drop of water on me because you never knew the microbes that it might contain,” Townsend recalled.
As a result of the initiative, Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine Executive Director George Smith envisions more and bigger fish in the Kennebec River and a regional marketing system to take advantage of anglers coming to get them.
Smith also hopes the initiative will find ways to protect important wild sections of the river using conservation easements or land purchases.
“I’d like to see collaborative, cooperative, effective marketing attention on the river,” he said.
Smith, who with others helped persuade state conservation officials and a range of public and private agencies to support the idea, said state officials need to increase the size of fish that can be taken from the river and reduce the number fishermen can catch in order to boost the size of fish to prize proportions that he said will draw tourists from around the world.
Such limits can be controversial in the fishing world, but he said they ultimately would be supported by sportsmen to reach the goal of growing larger fish.
With the elimination of the Edwards Mill Dam and vastly cleaner water, the river is the equal of any major fishing river in the world, Smith said.
“Anglers spend a lot of money to fish the world’s great rivers,” Smith told the gathering. “They will do that on the Kennebec if we invest in that fishery, improve access to the river in key spots and market this experience appropriately and effectively. I guarantee this will happen.”
Tilberg said the Kennebec County Soil and Water Conservation District will direct the project, and the Kennebec Valley Council of Governments will administer several grants funding the effort.
The Kennebec River Initiative has received a Maine Outdoor Heritage Fund grant of $25,000 to help start the process, along with $30,000 from the state Land and Water Conservation Fund, which distributes money from offshore oil drilling payments to the U.S. Department of the Interior.
The effort also is being funded with $10,000 from the State Planning Office’s Coastal Zone Management Program to provide computerized maps of the river area, Tilberg said.
In addition, the group has received a second Maine Outdoor Heritage Fund grant for $19,900 to develop a DVD to help explain the effort and promote the group.
“The idea is to create ‘river reach’s committees,” one including community representatives for each third of the river, Kennebec Valley Council of Governments Executive Director Kenneth Young told the group.
“We’re going to really rely on you people to tell us who else should be involved.”
The southern-most committee would include communities from the ocean to Augusta, Young said, the central division from north of Augusta to Skowhegan, and the northern reach from north of Skowhegan to Moosehead Lake. Communities on the cusp may want representatives on both reach committees.