$50M needed to return salmon to “signature river”
VEAZIE – A deal to demolish two dams and restore Atlantic salmon to the Penobscot River was sealed Friday, though the $50 million needed to fund the project is anything but certain. The Penobscot River Restoration Project, announced last October, was hailed by visiting Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton as “perhaps the most significant step to restore the Atlantic salmon in the past century.”
Friday’s agreement guarantees that PPL Corp. of Allentown, Penn., will sell its hydroelectric dams at Veazie, Howland and Old Town to a coalition including conservation groups and the Penobscot Nation within the next five years for $25 million.
In exchange, conservation groups have agreed to drop opposition to relicensing at other dams, and PPL has gained the right to increase power generation at six other dams, in Medway, Ellsworth (Graham Lake), West Enfield, Stillwater, Orono and Milford.
Ultimately, two of the dams will be demolished and the Howland Dam will be outfitted with a new hydraulic fish lift, opening up 500 miles of river that haven’t been available as fish habitat for nearly a century. But first, Penobscot Partners must raise a total of $50 million.
“The clock starts ticking as of today,” said Andy Goode of the Atlantic Salmon Federation
Before the backdrop of a blue-gray river rushing over Veazie Dam on Friday afternoon, Norton, Gov. John Baldacci, Penobscot Chief Barry Dana, Dennis Murphy of PPL and Laura Rose Day of Penobscot Partners ceremonially signed the agreement and congratulated one another on the four years of work that it took to reach this milestone.
“What a huge opportunity to be able to restore the Penobscot River to its once-acclaimed status … [as] one of the signature rivers of the United States,” Baldacci said.
Someday, Mainers may again tell legends of walking across the river on the backs of tens of thousands of spawning salmon, Dana said.
Though the fish in the Penobscot River are not among the populations listed as federally endangered, restoring the state’s biggest salmon run is crucial to bringing the fish back to healthy levels in Maine, said Joan Trial, a fisheries biologist with the Maine Atlantic Salmon Commission.
“There’s still work to be done,” Baldacci said. “But today, we can celebrate what has been accomplished.”
Norton called the agreement a prime example of the sort of cooperative conservation that the present administration would like to see take the place of legal battles over environmental protection.
“It might have been a lot easier for members of the groups to just denounce each other,” Norton said.
“Everyone could have gambled on a winner-take-all approach and everyone could have lost,” she said. “I really think that almost everything is best addressed by having people sit down to find common ground.”
But for the Penobscot River restoration to be successful, financing for the dam purchases and demolitions must also be collaborative, with contributions from industry, nonprofit groups and private donations, as well as the federal agencies giving lip service to the project, supporters of the plan said.
“There ought to be investment from the full range of sources in all phases of the project,” Day said. “This is an investment that the Penobscot River and its people deserve.”
Norton did not specifically commit to federal funding for the project Friday, saying only that her agencies’s technical expertise will be available and suggesting that existing federal grant programs could be sources of support.
The president’s fiscal year 2005 budget contained no funding for the project. However, Maine’s congressional delegation has tried to intervene on the Penobscot’s behalf.
Democratic Rep. Mike Michaud of Maine’s 2nd District attempted to add $5 million for the project to the Interior Department’s appropriation bill, but did not prevail in the final House vote last week. In coming weeks, he will try again, adding $5 million to the Commerce Department budget appropriation, spokeswoman Monica Castellanos said Friday.
Both of Maine’s Republican senators also have pledged their support for the effort. Sen. Olympia Snowe has requested $1 million in the fiscal year 2005 appropriations budget for Atlantic salmon restoration on the Penobscot, she said in a statement released Friday. Additional requests are guaranteed as the project gets going, a spokeswoman said Friday.
“We’re certainly going to do our best to make as large a commitment as possible,” agreed a spokesman from Sen. Susan Collins’s office. “We’re pursuing as many angles as we can.”
Realistically, however, little federal funding will be available without the support of Norton and the rest of the Bush administration.
“Ideally, we’d like to get it into the president’s budget. Right now, we’re on the outside looking in,” Goode said. “It won’t be done without federal funding.”
But Friday, the mood was one of optimism about the Penobscot River Restoration Project’s chances.
Kelly Cotiaux, a member of the Veazie Salmon Club, told of meeting fellow anglers in Nova Scotia and wishing they could fish their home river. The Penobscot River Restoration Project has given her hope that salmon fishing may return to Maine in her lifetime, she said.
“It’s not going to happen tomorrow, but it’s gonna happen. We believe it,” Cotiaux said.