Like most members of the Penobscot Nation, Scott Phillips grew up near the Penobscot River and learned to paddle and fish as a young boy. He took to it like a duck to water. He became a competitive racer and eventually opened his own business selling canoes, kayaks and other outdoor gear.
Next week, the first of two dams on the river will be removed, altering the way it’s used recreationally. The change could also be a boon to Phillip’s business.
“There’s going be more people that are going to want to get into canoeing or kayaking or even rafting,” Phillips says. “Because once we take those dams out, you’re going from basically two small, lake-type features to a free-flowing river again and it’s going to be nice.”
Paddling a stretch of calm water, Phillips says members of his tribe have long opposed the labyrinth of dams that block Atlantic salmon from their native spawning grounds. By the end of next year, a 35-mile section of river is expected to be clear.
“It’s the traveling route my Penobscot ancestors used to get to the ocean for centuries, and so I’m very excited to retrace those steps,” says Phillips.
Long Time Coming
Conservation groups are also cheering the move. For centuries, industry relied on the Penobscot River. Former Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Commissioner Bucky Owen is a fly fisherman who’s hopeful nearly a dozen fish species will be restored along with the river’s ecological health.
“I’ve been involved with conservation for over 40 years here in Maine and this is the No. 1 project I think that I will have been or will be involved in — the most significant,” Owen says.
A coalition of conservation groups collaborated with industry, the Penobscot Nation and government officials to make the project happen. Before they came to an agreement, the three parties fought protracted court battles over hydro development and fish passage. Black Bear Hydro spokesman Scott Hall was one of the first people to agree to negotiation.
“The benefit to us relatively early on was very clear,” Hall says. “And that was that there was a better way to do business.”
Fewer Dams, More Energy
In exchange for removal of two out-dated, inefficient dams and installing better fish passage at a third, Hall’s company is allowed to boost energy production at other facilities along the river. The complicated process to get to the agreement has taken 13 years.
“We had a number of occasions where the emotions were very high,” Hall says. “But to everybody’s credit, I think somebody was able to step in each time and say okay, wait a minute, we’re making progress here. There’s a bigger end to this.”
Despite the three sides finally agreeing to remove the dams, there are still some critics of the historic project, including Maine’s Gov. Paul LePage.
It’s irresponsible for our state or our country to be taking out hydro dams at this time,” LePage says.
LePage says more dams should be built as a way to lower energy costs. In protest, he is skipping Monday’s planned celebration to mark the Penobscot’s rebirth with the demolition of the Great Works Dam.