August 28, 2008

Dam Request Pits Salmon Versus History


It's a battle between history and natural history that has raged for several years. But soon the Scribner Mills Preservation will get its answer from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection and will find out whether it can put a dam in the Crooked River.

The river, the site of the original Scribner sawmill, happens to be the chief spawning habitat for landlocked salmon in Sebago Lake. Needless to say, the nonprofit preservation group in Harrison is fighting a steep battle, but it is not deterred.

Depending on the answer from the DEP, either the state fisheries biologists and fishermen who are fighting the dam or the preservation group can contest it, throwing it back at the DEP for further consideration. It could take several more years.

The request is also opposed by the Natural Resources Council of Maine, Maine Rivers, the Sebago Lake Anglers Association and the Friends of Sebago Lake.

In an era when dams are being taken down across Maine to allow sea-run fish a greater chance at spawning in rivers, the group seems to be swimming against the current.

The preservation group's request recommends putting in a fish passage along with the 4-foot dam it needs to run a water-powered sawmill.

"It's been a long process, just to see wood cut with saws that were used before the circular saw. The up-and-down saw is called a sash saw. The mill has one of the very few original up-and-down saws, at least in Maine," said Dana Murch, the dam's hydro supervisor at the DEP, who is charged with deciding the case.

The fish passage would allow some salmon to pass - more than 90 percent, said Francis Brautigam, a regional fisheries biologist in southern Maine.

But given the importance of the river to Maine's wild salmon population, 100 percent of the salmon should be given the chance to spawn, Brautigam said.

"Sebago is one of only four indigenous waters of the landlocked salmon in Maine. And about 70 percent of the lake fishery is comprised of salmon that originated from the Crooked River. It is a significant source of wild salmon to Sebago Lake," Brautigam said.

Sebago, Green Lake, West Grand Lake and the St. Croix River comprise the only spawning habitats of Maine's wild landlocked salmon, Murch said. Sebago is the only body of water with wild landlocked salmon this side of Bangor.

Back in the 1970s, what was left of the previous Scribner Mill dam was taken down by Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, Brautigam said. Today, the goal should be to maintain, if not increase, fish passage, he said. There are new threats the salmon face that weren't a problem 40 years ago.

The illegal introduction of northern pike in Sebago eventually is going to threaten the salmon population, and having a dam that would create dead water on the Crooked River would only increase that negative impact, Brautigam said.

"Not only will it take out of production (some of the) salmon, but it also will increase the suitable habitat for less desirable fish that prey on salmon, like pike and bass," Brautigam said.

Brautigam said fisheries biologists around the country, even the world, rely on Sebago's wild salmon population to help restore wild salmon populations in other places. "It's a unique genetic population," he said.

The preservation group altered its original request from several years ago, which asked for a smaller dam to allow more salmon to move upriver to spawn. Now it is holding fast to its request to create a living history center in Harrison.

"We have a really unique site here that tells the story of the sawmill industry in Maine. Our site is on the original site and uses the original equipment. It's more than a sawmill with a livelihood. It was an industry that supported many people who lived in the community," said Marilyn Hatch, spokeswoman for the preservation group.

Hatch said the sawmill tells a vital part of Maine's history and brings that history to life in a way no museum can.

"They did logging and then in the spring, they'd do log drives and then during the high-water time, they would cut lumber. They would make shingles and they would make barrels. It was really quite an industry," she said.

Since 1977, after the original dam came down, the preservation group has slowly been rebuilding Scribner Mill, Hatch said.

It now organizes Back to the Past events, showing how wood is cut and barrels are made. However, tractor power is used to run the sawmill instead of water power.

Murch said the DEP will look at arguments on both sides of the dam debate and make its decision based on the merit of each request.

Given the passion for the request to have a dam and also to forbid a dam, the debate could rage for years, Murch said.

"The Scribner Mills people certainly are passionate about restoring the historic (water)-powered saw mill," Murch said. "Water power made Maine. I think you'll find that in about every town.

"These things are important culturally and historically. Equally, Sebago Lake is only one of four wild landlocked salmon fisheries in the entire state of Maine. The rest are all stocked."

Staff Writer Deirdre Fleming can be contacted at 791-6452 or at:

[email protected]

Originally published by By DEIRDRE FLEMING Staff Writer.

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