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Stream Restoration Initiative
08/31/2012   Reported By: Susan Sharon

Lots of attention has been paid to the removal of old dams in recent years, a trend conservationists has helped restore sea-run fish to some rivers. Much less focus has been placed on the tens of thousands of stream crossings in Maine and on the culverts that have been built to prevent water from washing out roadways in the Spring. A new initiative is underway to get engineers to consider fish passage when they design culverts and bridges.

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Inproperly situated culvert

Culverts are basically big, stabilizing pipes. They're supposed to allow roadways to cross over a river or stream and still allow water to freely pass underneath. But if the culverts are too narrow or if they're placed at the wrong angle, or a little too high above the surface of the water, the fish that use the stream have a big problem. They get stuck. At this crossing on Concord Gulley Brook in Freeport two adjacent culverts are perched about two feet off the water.

Alex Abbott : "And so this is very typical and indicative of the kind of problems we see across the state as far as fish passage."

Alex Abbott is a fish passage specialist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who is demonstrating how a culvert that is improperly constructed can become the equivalent of the Hoover Dam for brook trout, salamanders and other creatures trying to move up or downstream.

Alex Abbott: "And certainly if you get really lucky and you're talking about a brook trout or a salmon that can jump, they may be lucky enoug to jump into these pipes but there is also a combination of problems that happens, the water is to shallow in the pipes.

Susan Sharon: "So, if you were able to fix this with your wand, what would you do to correct the situation, Alex?"

Alex Abbott: "Most of the time what we're recommending is making these sites wider and lower...lots are being put in these days that have natural bottoms. We often call them "open bottom arches." An open bottom is what fish are used to seeing and if we can get something wide enough it makes the fish happy and it makes us happy too."

Fish need to be able to move up and downstream to spawn, search for food, hide from predators and hang out in cooler water. And for the past several years a group of unlikely allies has collaborated on a new initiative to teach landowners, contractors and municipal officials how to modernize stream crossings with fish and improved fish habitat in mind. It's just one of many projects developed by the forest products industry, conservation groups, landowners and representatives from state and federal agencies who are part of the Keeping Maine's Forests Initiatives. The idea, says, Tom Rumpf of the Nature Conservancy, is to protect the largest contiguous block of forest east of the Mississippi: the Maine North Woods.

Tom Rumpf: "It's important for the economy, both in terms of the forest products industry and tourism, but it's also incredibly important for wildlife habitat and recreation...and other uses as well..."

Ground zero for this approach is Washington County where Atlantic Salmon were listed as an endangered species in several Downeast rivers a dozen years ago.

Mark Berry: "So far we have completed 13 road-stream crossing restorations...We have four more that are underway yet this summer."

Mark Berry is the executive director at Downeast Lakes Land Trust in Grand Lake Stream. The land trust owns and manages close to 34-thousand acres as a community forest.

AMC Culvert Photo 5Mark Berry says: "By making these restorations and installing either bottomless arch culverts or bridges or in a few instances removing and relocating a road crossing entirely, we're restoring natural stream habitat and passage for brook trout, especially, and in some cases Atlantic salmon and other aquatic wildlife."

Many private landowners, who are paying for the improvements out of pocket, are also being motivated under the Sustainable Forestry Initiative. If they want their timberland certified as sustainable, designing stream crossings with fish habitat in mind is considered a "best practice." Pat Sirois of the Maine Forest Products Council says that with tens of thousands of private and public stream crossings around Maine, it's nearly impossible to know how many have been replaced...

Pat Sirois: "We know there are a significant number but with that said there are so many to be done and we're going to be at this for a good many years."

Sirois says one major challenge will be to help municipalities find funding to make the improvements. But the payout is a big one for fish, fishermen and the woods. Bryan Wentzell of the Appalachian Mountain Club points out that 90 percent of brook trout habitat in the eastern U.S. is in Maine.

Bryan Wentzell: "You're not dealing with a depleted resource that needs all sort of mitigation or funding to bring it back to what it once was. Really, it's an opportunity to take the habitat from A to A-plus."

Wentzell says the AMC has three stream restoration projects in the works. When all three are completed they will have opened up an additonal ten miles of stream habitat to fish....something the Keeping Maine's Forest Initiative hopes can be replicated thousands of times over as word of mouth and training spreads across the state.



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