The tension in the room is stifling. I, along with fellow intern Matt Gamache ’13, am sitting in on a conference call with our supervisor at the Nature Conservancy in Maine. Visibly nervous, Kate is negotiating with staff from two other large environmental orgaizations.They’re blowing up a dam.
Well, not exactly blowing up; exploding the Great Works Dam would probably end up harming the very endangered species that these groups hope to save.
After an uncomfortable pause, Organization One gets up the guts to oppose it superior, which I will call Organization Three.
“No,” says a thin female voice, “I think we should announce funding in a rolling order.”
In other words, she wants Organization Three to hold off on annoucing their fundraising totals, as those figures would no doubt overshadow the efforts of Organizations One and Two, who had also raised millions for the project.
After a tense pause, Organization Three agrees.
The Penobscot Indian Nation, along with a slew of other environmental groups, governmental bodies and businesses, has been working to remove two dams on the Penobscot River since 1999, when a power company—PPL—bought three dams on the river right before their re-licensing contracts were up.
Influenced in part by the considerable legal leverage of the nationally-sovereign Penobscot Nation, PPL agreed to abandon their development of the dams and sell them to to the Penobscot River Restoration Trust, a group comprised of the previously mentioned groups.
The sale may prove profitable for PPL, too; according to some estimates, it is possible that the relocation of equipment to other sites might actually increase net hydropower production and, if succesful, the strategy will likely serve as a model for dam removal projects world-wide.
The passive-aggressive negotiations on the phone proceed for the next 30 minutes. I don’t think the word “dam” has been uttered more than once, when Organization Three asked whether the dam would go down in a big explosion and Organization Two said no, but assured everyone that the demolition team had done enough prep work to make sure part of it crumbles after the countdown.
“We will try to make it look dramatic,” Organization Two says.
The Penobscot River used to be the single most important river for sea-run Atlantic salmon and many other commercial fish. The first salmon caught on the river every year used to be gifted to the president of the United States; George H.W. Bush was the last president to receive one.
Biologists estimate that Atlantic salmon alone will quadruple with the removal of the two most seaward dams, a move which, they say, could save the currently endangered species from extinction.
Once completed, the dam removal will make over 1,000 miles of spawning habitat accessible to sea-run fish, reviving a population that has sustained an ecosystem and a nation for centuries.
I guess excruciating phone calls are necessary for modern environmental miracles.
As our crew of TNC employees roll up in a fleet of Subarus to Old Town on the morning of June 11, my boss is about ready to rip someone’s throat out. She looks manic and on edge: happy, but also as though she hasn’t slept in two weeks. She is TNC’s mouthpiece and she is out for blood.
She smiles and shakes hands and runs around in a dress that I don’t think has left her closet in years. (Keens and jeans are appropriate attire for most TNC events). But this is no normal event; today, our unlikely gang of monkey wrenchers gets to see ecological justice carried through.
Through some stroke of luck, I get a viewing spot on the sought-after lower site.
The banks of the Penobscot are so flooded on the day of the event that the lower site—already crowded with industry spokespeople—could only hold about 50 people. I’m given a stack of press packets to dole out, so I get to go in.
Once in the VIP section, I join a group of donors, executive directors, “spokespeople,” members of the Penobscot Nation, and roadies. I can spot the donors easily; their scuffed chinos and obvious discomfort give them away.
I stand at the press table greeting people. For some reason, a bunch of old ladies are on the VIP list. They are interested in my work as an intern at the Conservancy and relish my offers of sunscreen and bug spray. This may be the most attention I have received from a crowd of women in my life.
Finally, the event begins. The former chief of the Penobscot Nation walks by my booth with his wife and I offer them sunscreen. He looks at me solemnly.
“Sun screen gives you cancer,” he says.
The former chief takes the stage. He and another Nation elder sing to honor the river and burn a sage concoction. Somehow, this melody brings a sort of peace to the heated mixture of excitement, confusion, and self-congratulation that has, thus far, fueled the day. The song breathes a sense of humility into the event that did not exist before.
We stand and listen to the music, Penobscot River mud staining our clothes.
This dam is coming out due to the uniquely successful efforts of a group of nature freaks and their compliant business partners. And while human beings blocked the river, squelched out its power and reduced its pulse, it never died.
Even now, water trickles down through the cracks in the concrete and the wood. Even now, as prehistoric construction equipment crawls out into the mainstem of the flows, the river is in control.
It just happened that the Penobscot River Restoration Trust heard its request before the rest of us.
Listening to the beating of the drum, the lilting voice of Barry Dana and seeing the fragrant smoke rise over the swollen river, I feel respect buzzing in the air. I can see something like understanding in the eyes of the bug-slapping donors, the under-dressed scientists, and the suited-up public officials.
I realize my own perspective has been the naive one—that I’ve been missing the point of this whole event.
The tension in the planning meetings is merely and example of how a state works the seemingly selfish drive for every participating organization to get personal credit for the project’s success is how environmental nonprofits succeed and secure funds.
It was me, the overly-idealistic environmental studies major, who was seeing the proceedings as flawed because they did not seem selfless.
I realized that what I had witnessed over the past few months was not flawed environmentalism, but conservation absorbed into our democratic-capitalist system. It was environmentalism actually working.
Our contemporary environmental movement will not work if it is comprised soley of impassioned citizens yelling at evil corporations and governments to clean-up and green-up their acts. It must instead adopt an ever-evolving mindset that is both aware of the measures needed to achieve large-scale reform and able to seize the opportunities for small and practical change. The movement should have the chops of a hydropower company that agrees to destroy its own dams.
This kind of institutionalized environmentalism is what got nonprofits, corporations, and government regulators to compromise on a myriad of details so that the plan of the Penobscot River Restoration Trust could succeed.
When the Atlantic salmon returns three years from now, it won’t care who did what for what reason when. It will tighten its muscles and breach the cold water into a wall of suffocating air. It will land in a spot of river that its species has not touched for over a hundred years. Then it will keep swimming.