Restoring a River with Community Partnerships: A template for change

Last month I had the pleasure of attending the symbolic ceremony marking the Penobscot River Restoration Project, the destruction and removal of the Great Works Dam in Old Town, Maine. Now this dam has been breached and those of you who enjoy watching large machines destroy things can watch here.

I grew up near the Penobscot River and back then, in the 1950’s and 60’s, rivers in Maine were barely alive. The Penobscot never froze over in those winter days and did not support fish life. The salmon and sturgeon, the alewives and striped bass, declined almost to the point of extinction.

Over a decade ago, conservation groups, the Penobscot Indian Nation, communities and governments came together and participated in a collaborative effort to restore the health of this river.  The water quality had already improved, thanks to clean water laws initially proposed and enacted by legislation begun in the 60’s by the state legislature, including my mother, who was a representative from Orono, Maine.

Now, the goals of these collaborating groups are being realized in the form of actual removal of dams and the building of modern fish diverters and elevators around the dams that will remain. Over one thousand miles of water will be reclaimed by nature; hopefully, returning salmon and alewives will find it a healthy home to spawn and reproduce.

Restoring the health of the river will contribute in many ways to restoring the health of those who live work and play on it, including the Native people, those who fish in the river, in saltwater bays and in the Gulf of Maine, and visitors from away. More fish contributes to more fish, therefore more fishing.  Sometimes things are just that simple.

I cannot help but see this as a metaphor for life today and for my efforts to build  a new life for my daughter and her peers. We must persevere in the face of entrenched and antiquated ideas about what is possible, collaborating with others even when the groups seem to have opposing priorities. Old and crumbling obstacles must be removed and the natural way restored so that our children, our most fragile and vulnerable resource, be allowed to flourish in a dangerously damaged environment.

Listening to the speeches by the dignitaries at the ceremony, I heard many words matching the phrases I heard at the planning day for autism programs at the agency I have been working with:

  • Partnership
  • Quality of Life
  • Positive Change
  • Innovative
  • Community Collaboration
  • Leadership

As disability advocates, we have much to learn from this example in the conservation community.

My mother would be proud that people working together could achieve so much for this Penobscot River, for Maine and for the health of the environment.  I hope that other groups of people can collaborate to achieve their individual goals in a similar manner.

I plan to keep this milestone achievement in my mind as inspiration as I work to move my “Restoration” project forward in the next years: my “Peaceful Revolution”.

 

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