A River Runs Through It

A 16-year effort to restore the Penobscot has become a model for the planet.

Standing on a bluff six miles north of Bangor, John Banks, the Natural Resources Director for the Penobscot Nation, remembers the day in 2013 when the Veazie dam was first breached. As the initial pulses of free-flowing water behind the dam began to surge through the opening, “everything in me was vibrating,” he says. “It felt pretty darn good.”

Four years later, as Banks and I watch an osprey cruise the far shore over Eddington looking for an afternoon meal, we are
joined by Laura Rose Day, who was until recently the director of the Penobscot River Restoration Trust, which partnered with the Penobscot Nation to launch the dam removal effort over a decade and a half ago. “It’s hard to imagine the dam ever being here,” Day says, as she points to a concrete abutment across the river three football fields away, one of the few signs left of the dam’s once- imposing presence. “It’s hard to remember what it even looked like.”

For over a century prior to 2013, an immense abutment, a powerhouse, and massive penstock connected to spinning turbines and generators were integral parts of a century-old electric power system. Bangor Hydro’s 32-foot-tall, 830-foot-long Veazie Dam spanned the entire main stem of the Penobscot River, creating an impoundment that stretched three and a half miles upriver. Farther upriver at Old Town, a second Bangor Hydro dam, the Great Works Dam, created another impoundment that generated additional hydroelectric power. And at Howland, where the Piscataquis River joins the Penobscot, was a third Bangor Hydro dam.

Beginning in 1999, however, six major environmental groups, the Penobscot Nation, and federal and state agency representatives came together to reach an agreement with the dam owner to remove the Penobscot’s two “main stem” dams and bypass a third. The result is the restoration of over 1,000 miles of habitat for 11 species of sea-run fish that had been choked off from their spawning ground for almost two centuries. As part of the complex deal, which involved negotiating intricate real estate agreements and securing numerous state and federal permits, environmental groups also agreed to support the relicensing and renovation of three other dams on the Stillwater branch of the Penobscot to compensate for the power lost to dam removal on the main stem. From start to finish, the effort took 16 years and $60 million, but everyone got something valuable—and perhaps timeless—from the agreement.

The successful effort to restore natural habitats on the Penobscot River was a massive turning point in New England’s economic history after centuries of industrial use of the region’s waterways. When Henry David Thoreau ventured up the Penobscot River from Bangor in 1837, he described “two hundred and fifty saw-mills on the Penobscot and its tributaries above Bangor, the greater part of them in this immediate neighborhood” that “sawed two hundred millions of feet of boards annually.”

For Banks and the Penobscot Nation, however, tribal connections to the river go back much further—some 10,000 years, during which time the tribe has depended on it for sustenance. “The Penobscot Nation has been involved with trying to save this river since the 1700s. There are records of leaders from Indian Island going to Boston by canoe to complain about the loss of fish habitat from sawmill waste,” says Banks. But the Penobscots lost battle after battle to more powerful economic interests. When President Jimmy Carter signed the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act in 1980, Banks notes ruefully, “We regained sustenance fishing rights in the river, but there were no fish.”

Laura Rose Day came to Maine in 1998 as the watershed director of the Natural Resources Council of Maine. An agreement to remove Edwards Dam on the Kennebec River had just been reached. But on the Penobscot, Day recalls that, “after a bruising environmental battle over Bangor Hydro’s plan to erect a new hydroelectric dam at Basin Mills, the river was gasping for breath with only three percent of salmon habitat left in the river below the Veazie Dam.” When Bangor Hydro sold its dams on the Penobscot to Pennsylvania Power and Light (PPL) in 1998, both Day and Banks sensed that the sale provided a potential opening for different actors to be involved in a different discussion, even though “trust was at a low ebb, after having so many different interests swinging at each other for such a long period of time,” as Day puts it.

When environmental groups, including Atlantic Salmon Federation, Trout Unlimited, American Rivers, Maine Audubon, and the Natural Resources Council of Maine, joined shortly thereafter by the Nature Conservancy, agreed to sit down with PPL, they chose Day as their representative. The Penobscot Nation tapped Banks to represent their interests and between them they began meeting with company representatives. Banks credits Day as “the conductor of the orchestra. She kept everyone in line from start to finish,” he says. “After all those years of opposition,” Day says, “the only way forward was spending a lot of time together in rooms, face to face.”

In meetings with “lots and lots of lawyers,” the parties slogged through the tedious details of how much the dams were worth, what it would cost to remove them, who would own the remaining property, how to structure purchase options, how the Howland Dam would be redesigned to permit fish passage, and then the need to raise the tens of millions of dollars that would be required for this massive undertaking to succeed.

I ask the pair of them whether there was a turning point in the long process. Day, the determined advocate and environmental lawyer, points to “a lot of chipping away at the complexity of issues.” But the gray- haired Banks has another recollection. During a particularly contentious time, he recalls, “We were at an impasse with all these government lawyers, NGO attorneys, and business people. It was starting to sound like it was more about them than the river. I knew I had to do something. I asked for a few moments and unwrapped an eagle feather and walked behind each person. I said that the salmon and the eagle and everything else had been in this river for thousands of years. ‘We are their voice,’ I said. I could feel the energy of each person through that feather. When I got to each person, it was like something speaking through me. That was a turning point.”

Although it took the group five years to reach a final agreement in 2004 among all parties, the next daunting challenge was to raise $25 million within a five-year option window to purchase the three dams PPL wanted to sell. “Incredibly, public funders and generous private donors enabled us to exercise the option a year ahead of time that saved us a million dollars,” Day says.

After walking along the free-flowing Penobscot at Veazie, we wind our way upriver to the former site of the Great Works Dam, 14 miles farther north, which was demolished a year before Veazie in 2012. We cross the river at Old Town, and on the Bradley side, turn off the two-lane highway onto a town road that dead-ends at a small parking lot. There is no room to park in the lot because several trucks with long trailers stacked high with kayaks arrived a short time ahead of us. For the third year in a row, the sprint races of the Penobscot River Whitewater Nationals Regatta were taking place in the town of Bradley.

We meet Nate Lord, a 60-something grizzled whitewater instructor from Colorado, who has brought a group of high school students for the canoe and kayak championships.

“We come here to do technique training,” Lord says, adding, “It’s great for the kids because the river is so clean and pristine.” Four of his students, he tells us, are going to Austria in a few weeks for the International Canoe Federation Wildwater Junior World Championships. “This is an incredible community resource,” Lord says, “and because Laura and John were clever enough to remove these dams, the kids have this place to practice.”

“This is the story of this project,” Day says, with a slight smile. “Whenever we bring visitors to the river, we’ll meet someone who will say something like, ‘I used to fish here with my great-grandfather …’ It always seems like a setup, and we have to say, ‘Please tell them, we don’t know you.’”

Day looks across the stretch of whitewater where kayak after kayak comes sluicing through three sets of rapids. “This was our dream,” she says, “but a lot of people were skeptical because the water was black and slack and dead.” Her voice trails off. “People think it’s all about the fish,” she adds, “but the whitewater opportunities are a really big part of the story, too.” Banks just grins and says, “It’s kind of nice just to hear the sound of running water.”

The last piece of the Penobscot restoration puzzle was also its most technically challenging and politically sensitive, says Andrew Goode of the Atlantic Salmon Federation. The old Bangor Hydro dam at Howland, part of the sale to PPL, is located just upstream of the junction where the large tributary of the Piscataquis River flows into the main stem of the Penobscot. The dam had been used to power a large tannery mill at Howland that had been closed and derelict since 1971. The three-and-a-half- mile-long impoundment, however, was the town’s main recreational asset. Local leaders and residents wanted no part of a dam removal project that would eliminate the body of water. Goode recognized that the impoundment “was the town commons.”

So the Penobscot River Restoration Trust, which at that point also included the Nature Conservancy, went to work with the town to come up with a plan B: the largest natural river bypass channel in the country, which would allow fish to access the river upstream, while leaving the impoundment unaffected.

Kate Dempsey, who heads the Nature Conservancy in Maine, was used to big projects with big budgets when the organization joined the trust’s effort. The Nature Conservancy, along with its partners, set to work on helping to raise the public dollars still needed to purchase the dams for $24 million. They also needed more than twice as much to remove the Great Works and Veazie dams and to build the Howland bypass; the final bill for the project ultimately exceeded $60 million. Dempsey says that it was critical not just to ensure the funds could be raised through private and federal sources, but also that the trust could finance the collection of information about the project’s effect on fish runs and communities. Thinking big, the Nature Conservancy was mindful that if fish returns and other benefits were quantified, the Penobscot project could influence other dam removal efforts—not just around the United States, but around the world. The trust’s work resulted in designing, funding, and finally completing the river bypass channel in 2016 and working with Howland as town leaders began to reimagine future waterfront opportunities.

Dempsey says the number of fish returning to the Penobscot “are what we had hoped, but what is really remarkable is how fast it is happening throughout the entire system.” The count at the Milford fish ladder in 2017 has reached two million fish, “from next to nothing,” Dempsey says. Goode notes that the Atlantic Salmon Federation has documented that both Atlantic salmon and river herring use the Howland bypass “just like it was the river.” Goode regularly checks in at Howland and is excited every time he goes. “You have to see the channel in person to really appreciate its scale,” he says, “because the Piscataquis is not a small river.” He adds, “It’s like one of the eight wonders of the world.”

The dream that the Penobscot project would become a model to inspire other groups has already begun. While standing with Day and Banks on the shore at Bradley, where the removal of the Great Works Dam has exposed churning whitewater rapids, Day tells me, “People come from all over the world to look at this. There have been visiting delegations, not only from around the U.S., but from South Korea, China, and Japan.” Banks mentions that a delegation from the Maori Tribe from New Zealand is coming for a ceremony in the near future.

I ask Day and Banks how they explain the enormous success of this project. “If you are empathetic toward people with different views, you realize they have good ideas, too,” Day says. “You make space for people to share ideas without blinders.” And both Banks and Day believe that other governments and environmentalists recognize that the process of restoring the Penobscot River is what can be replicated, even though the circumstances in each case will be different. But perhaps the last word belongs to Banks, who kept the spirit of the river alive in himself and everyone else throughout the long and complicated ordeal. “It just gave me such a great sense of hope that people can come together to get to a better place,” he says. “This is hopeful for the planet.”