If there was ever a time to be convinced of the importance of rivers, it is now. Reports from the western United States bring with them alarming images – including Chinook salmon dying en masse in California due to extreme heat and the Colorado River facing water scarcity for the first time in recorded history. Rivers play an essential role in the functioning of ecosystems. They also take into account a number of industries, from power generation to agriculture to recreation.
Peter Taylor’s book “From Mountains to Sea: The Historic Restoration of the Penobscot River” offers a case study on the transformation of a Maine river. As Taylor – who is president of Harpswell-based Waterview Consulting and writes on travel and the environment – notes early on, the Penobscots used the river for thousands of years before settlers arrived. Most of the book’s opening pages are devoted to the writings of the tribal elder of the Penobscot Nation, Butch Phillips, who offers a concise account of the river’s changing history and purpose.
Phillips observes that the use of the river for logging and the creation of dams has fundamentally changed the character of the region. “The dams have not only changed the temperature and flow of water and inundated the spawning grounds of fish, they have blocked the once important migration of salmon, shad, sturgeon, alewife and other fish that were an important food source for the people, ”he writes. “People who once depended on these fish for their livelihoods now had to find other means of survival.”
But in the late 1990s, writes Taylor, a number of disparate groups found common ground on a common desire: to see the Atlantic salmon population rebound. This led to the creation of the Penobscot River Restoration Project (or PRRP), which Taylor describes as “an unprecedented collaboration between the Penobscot Nation, six conservation groups, two hydroelectric companies, and state and federal agencies.” And while the PRRP’s goal was relatively straightforward on paper, the route taken by its constituents to achieve that goal was more transformational than one might suspect.
“From the mountains to the sea” offers a lapidary, meticulous account of the actions of the PRRP over the following decades – and how these actions transformed the landscape around the river and the ecosystem it contains. The photographs accompanying the text help to reinforce the work done by the organization, in particular by providing readers with breathtaking images of the restored river, the fish that inhabit it today and the people who find a new purpose there. The story is not suspensive; rather, it is an impartial and comprehensive account of the large-scale, multifaceted, decades-long project.
Taylor describes how infrastructural obstructions in water bodies can have a substantial effect on the fish that live there. “As people built dams and road culverts, the Penobscot River and its tributaries became obstructed, and the migration of fish to spawning habitats like lakes and ponds became restricted, often impossible,” writes Taylor. “At the start of the 21st century, tributaries like the Blackman Stream had been devoid of alewife for nearly two hundred years.”
That may not sound like too much of a big deal, until you realize that alewives are, as Taylor notes, “the foundation of the food chain.”
Among the more delicate elements of the PRRP’s work was the removal of a number of dams on the Penobscot River, which supplied electricity to the region. This aspect of the project involved finding alternative ways to maintain a certain level of energy production and determining which dams would or would not affect fish migration.
Ultimately, it wasn’t just the fish that benefited from the river’s restoration. Once the work of the PRRP was completed, the increase in the number of fish led to the influx of eagles and ospreys to the area to eat them, for example. The fish restoration has also benefited the state’s ocean fisheries and offered greater hope that threats to several endangered species could be reversible.
The story of PRRP is part of a collection of groups that find common cause and work to make it a reality. And that underscores the greatest value of this book – namely, as a case study of how similar transformations might take place elsewhere in our fractured and divided country. Participants and stakeholders represented a wide range of political ideologies – Republicans, Democrats, Independents – not to mention disparate stakeholder groups. United in their concern for the Penobscot River, they largely succeeded in restoring the river. “From Mountains to Sea” offers a lot to study, and it offers the hope of a way forward.
New York resident Tobias Carroll is the author of the books “Political Sign”, “Reel” and the short story collection “Transitory”. He has done book reviews for Bookforum, the Star Tribune and elsewhere.