A Bird’s Tale

A River on the Rebound, “From the Mountains to the Sea”

Wed, 01/20/2021 - 10:00am

One of the greatest stories of ecological rebirth happened (and is happening) right here in Maine. It’s a story of people and communities and organizations and businesses finding ways to cooperate and find paths to positive changes that benefit all. A richly illustrated new book, “From the Mountains to the Sea,” published by Islandport Press, tells this uplifting tale: the amazing story of the historic restoration of the Penobscot River.

Beginning in the late 1700s and continuing through the 1800s and 1900s, dams were built on the Penobscot River despite continued objections by the Penobscot Nation, knowing that the dams would prevented fish from making their annual migrations from the sea to their spawning grounds upriver. Atlantic salmon, alewife, American shad, and American eel were among the dozen species of sea-run fish whose populations were decimated by the figurative slamming of the door to the river highway that led to the breeding grounds that they had used for thousands of years. Those fish populations had numbered in the millions, bringing essential sustenance to the people of the Penobscot Nation and to countless birds, mammals, and other creatures. Two hundred years later, the fish and the river were barely a shadow of what they had been.

Fast forward to 2001 when a coalition of conservation organizations, initiated by the Natural Resources Council of Maine, came together with the Penobscot Nation to pursue a new vision for bringing Maine’s greatest river and its fish and birds and other wildlife back to health. Fifteen years later, after countless hours of negotiations and discussions, two-thousand miles of river and stream habitat were now accessible to sea-run fish for the first time in centuries! Two dams that had stretched from one side of the river to the other had been completely removed, a natural bypass had been built around another, and a new modern fish passage was added to a fourth. Two hydroelectricity-generating dams on a side branch of the river were installed with new equipment to increase the amount of electricity they generated. The project required raising $63 million—worth every cent.

The results have already been incredible. Alewife numbers alone went from an estimated 12,700 in 2013 to 2.86 million by 2019 as counted at the Milford fish passage. In the Kennebec River, since removal of the Edwards Dam, we have seen the deeply heartening rebound in both fish populations and in the amazing jump in numbers of bald eagles, ospreys, common mergansers, and many other birds and wildlife. That scenario will be repeated on the Penobscot River, perhaps with even more astounding results.

The new book traces this story from the beginning through candid and very personal interviews with the many people that made it possible. It is fascinating to have a behind-the-scenes view of the sometimes complicated and tense negotiations, and seemingly insurmountable barriers that faced these visionaries, especially in the early years of the project. Reading these accounts, one is left both thankful and inspired by their persistence and willingness to find common ground, making possible the rebirth of this special and essential part of Maine’s history and ecology. The book is also chock full of gorgeous photos of the river, its wildlife, and its people as well as attractive maps and other graphics, making it a visual pleasure to enjoy as well.

We heartily recommend this book, available through most in-store and online booksellers and through the Islandport Press website at https://www.islandportpress.com/.

Jeffrey V. Wells, Ph.D., is a Fellow of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Vice President of Boreal Conservation for National Audubon. Dr. Wells is one of the nation's leading bird experts and conservation biologists and author of the “Birder’s Conservation Handbook.” His grandfather, the late John Chase, was a columnist for the Boothbay Register for many years. Allison Childs Wells, formerly of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, is a senior director at the Natural Resources Council of Maine, a nonprofit membership organization working statewide to protect the nature of Maine. Both are widely published natural history writers and are the authors of the popular books, “Maine’s Favorite Birds” (Tilbury House) and “Birds of Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaçao: A Site and Field Guide,” (Cornell University Press).