The Best Dam Holiday Gift Ever

What’s the best Christmas gift you’ve ever received?

My sister, Vaithi, gave me a gift certificate for snowboarding lessons a couple of years ago that, for me, pretty much changed winter. Further back, as a kid I received an air gun when I lived in Africa—good for me, not so good for the local wildlife. My Swarovski binoculars, the ones that have traveled well over a million miles with me, were a Christmas gift. That was a pretty good one I have to admit.

But this year, one present is going to be difficult to top. You can’t wrap it, and it’s sure not going to fit down the chimney or under a tree, but it will improve the lives of thousands of people and forever change how we define what’s possible in conservation.

The gift? Three large dams in Maine—the Veazie, the Great Works and the Howland—purchased just days ago by the Penobscot River Restoration Trust (of which The Nature Conservancy is a leading member) in a historic deal worth $24 million.

When Mike Tetreault, our Maine state director, told me this news when I visited him in Portland last week, I was elated. What was most impressive was how the partners found ways for hydropower to work with the ecology of the region.

Of course, the true beneficiaries of the Penobscot River Restoration Project are the riverside communities. Why? Because there is new opportunity to be gained from tourism that depends on free flowing rivers. And for sea run fish, like the Atlantic salmon, this gift is the equivalent to winning the European Lottery—El Gordo (the Fat One)! One thousand miles of river habitat will be opened up, and the members of the Penobscot Nation will once again exercise their traditional fishing rights when, in short order, two of these dams are demolished and one is bypassed.

But when you consider the obstacles involved in pursuing one of the world’s biggest river restoration projects, this achievement seems nothing short of a holiday miracle—one with benefits for all of us.

Think about it:

1)     Skeptics said there were too many players with different interests involved in the project—and that we’d never get all parties on the same page. Two power companies, one Native American tribe, numerous state and federal agencies, riverside towns and, to top it off, not one, not two but SIX environmental groups—talk about too many cooks in the kitchen. Still, the coalition proved the cynics wrong, worked through their differences and made it happen.

2)     With fish and hydropower routinely pitted against each other, balancing the need for a healthy river with the need to produce clean energy seemed like a pipe dream. Now, for the first time since the dams were built nearly 200 years ago, we are moving beyond traditional conflicts by finding a balance between energy production and healthy fisheries on the Penobscot that can serve as a model for the world.

While two dams will be demolished and one will be decommissioned, the new owner of other dams within the watershed, Black Bear Hydro, will expand generating capacity at dams nearby to maintain the same total generating capacity in the watershed—and perhaps even increase it.

3)     At $24 million, the price tag for buying the dams was, in these tough economic times, intimidating. But the Conservancy, working with partners and federal funding sources, managed to make it happen. It will take another $25 million to remove the Veazie and Great Works dams and to decommission and build a fish bypass at Howland, but we’ve already raised more than a quarter of that amount and have the momentum needed to make it happen.

When jackhammers begin pummeling the first dam and front end loaders lug away the debris in the summer of 2011, the project’s gifts will really begin to flow.

As the dams come down, shad, salmon, sturgeon and eels will stream through the river again, and their surging populations will help feed tuna, cod, bluefish and striped bass in the ocean. As kayak outfitters and salmon clubs spring up on shore, local economies will get a much needed boost. And as the river recovers, members of the Penobscot Nation like Butch Phillips will ply the river for fish just as their ancestors did.

Until then, the world has already received a gift with immeasurable value: proof that sustainable energy and conservation can be compatible and that people on different sides of the aisle—or river—can put aside their differences for a while and work together. That perhaps is the best gift of all.

What do you think about this tremendous gift? Please use the comments section to tell us and share your favorite gifts for the natural world.

(Image: Howland Dam on the Penobscot River. Source: Bridget Besaw)

If you believe in the work we’re doing, please lend a hand.


  1. This is fantastic–it’s like bypass surgery for nature. More of this please!

  2. Good to see. Attended U. Maine from 1966-1969 and had much interaction with the Penobscot. Remember that the paper mills closed down due to workers’ strikes, and salmon were seen in the Bangor salmon pools for the first time in years. We are taking out dams in Columbus, Georgia next year…creating a southern whitewater run. Some of us hope to see the shoal bass population increase and to see the return of some of the now endangered mussels that were first described scientifically from the predam shoals in Columbus.

  3. This sounds great! I’m excited for the restoration of the “real world”. I’m curious though – does this mean more water for rafting? 😉

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