Protecting Sheepscot River Salmon

The Sheepscot Valley Conservation Association's Palermo Preserve

By Sam Low


When the first trail clearing volunteers assembled at the new SVCA Palermo Preserve on May 8th, John Wentzel had already spent a week walking the property and he had created a complex of trails to take advantage of its topography and scenery. John is a board member of the Sheepscot Valley Conservation Association. He is also a professional forester with degrees from University of Maine Orono and years of experience in the woods. Selectively cutting trees is John's profession. He's an artist with a chainsaw. On a routine day, he tells me, he can take 35 cord of timber out of the forest.


“Alone?” I ask.


“No,” he responds, “I've got a skidder of course”


On this Saturday in May, we follow the sound of John's saw. He is way up ahead cutting a trail that he's marked out with plastic ribbons. We remove the slash, occasionally stopping to rest and chat or to observe a porcupine that has taken refuge in the branches of an oak tree. The day is sunny, the temperature bracing and the work enjoyable. The path we are clearing takes us down a mild incline from the parking lot to the Sheepscot River . We pass through stands of oak, beech, red and sugar maple, white pine, hornbeam, hemlock and fir. The river is overarched with fir boughs and budding wildflowers and its banks are emerald with lichen and moss. The sound of water washing over boulders and deadfall is soothing. Work stops for long moments as we contemplate the graceful landscape around us.


The SVCA purchased this land as part of a larger strategic vision to protect the entire river. The plan takes into account many variables, among them creating a thriving salmon population.


In 2000, SVCA's launched its Salmon Habitat Protection program with the goal of understanding the river's key salmon breeding grounds. To successfully spawn, for example, salmon need coarse gravel to create nests – called redds – and rapid flow which aerates the water, providing oxygen for their young. Similar habitat is needed for rearing the newborn fish. For two to three years, the salmon remain in fresh water, growing in size to about 7 inches. At this stage in their life cycle, they are called smolts and they have undergone drastic physiological changes, allowing them to adapt to life in the ocean. In May and June they swim downstream – pausing in deep cool pools to rest (another important habitat) - until they reach the ocean and embark on one of nature's most wondrous migrations. In about two months, they will reach the southern coast of Newfoundland ; two months later, they will be swimming in waters off southern Greenland ; and in another month and a half, they will reach northern Greenland . For the next few years, they will be free roamers of the ocean depths - until they feel the call of their home waters and begin a reverse migration to their Sheepscot spawning grounds.


The Sheepscot is the southernmost of Maine 's rivers to provide the right conditions for spawning salmon – but the environment is delicate and easily threatened. Acid rain and industrial, agricultural and other pollutants from rapid development has already eliminated salmon from rivers further south. The goal of the SVCA's Salmon Habitat Protection Program is to prevent that from happening in the Sheepscot. When the program began four years ago, the first step was to create a map of the river that defined essential salmon habitat. Using a sophisticated GIS mapping system which allows multiple computer-generated overlays, the SVCA collated scientific data and plotted specific locations necessary for salmon spawning, rearing and migration. But which of these many areas should the SVCA focus on preserving? Taking into account the organization's ability to craft conservation easements and to purchase land – the SVCA next overlaid the habitat map with a map of existing property boundaries. They then looked for areas where large tracts of land coincided with desirable habitat – taking into account that a few such sizable tracts could be more efficiently conserved than could multiple small tracts. This analysis produced six “focus areas” to guide the SVCA in their process of land acquisition.


Using this map as a guide, the SVCA then set to action. Three tracts of land – the Look Property, the Whitefield Salmon Preserve and the new Palermo Preserve, a total of 163 acres - have now been purchased outright; and easements have been arranged for two properties – Happy Farm and Coastal Enterprises, totaling 77 acres. More importantly, of the twelve miles of the river that SVCA currently owns or holds easements on – four miles of salmon habitat frontage is now protected.


The Happy Farm easement is an example of how SVCA's conservation efforts can preserve not only wildlife but human habitat as well. In 2002, SVCA learned that the owner of the Happy Farm, Lydia Chase, was interested in transferring ownership of the farm to her nephew, Pat, and his wife Robin. The problem was, she needed the income from the land and the Chases did not have the financial ability to purchase the entire farm. To solve this impasse, SVCA worked with Pat and Robin to develop a conservation easement on the farm – effectively purchasing the development rights - which made the land less valuable, bringing the price within reach for the Chases to purchase it. The easement included the creation of a 200-foot buffer, following the course of the river, in which no development or agricultural activities would take place. The buffer, and the fact that the Chases are organic dairy farmers, protects an intense zone of salmon habitat. Funds for the easement purchase were provided by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.


“Arranging the Happy Farm easement was one of my most satisfying moments with the SVCA,” says executive director Maureen Hoffman. “Many people tend to think human activities are at odds with the conservation of natural resources, but this is not the case. Here was an opportunity to help a Maine family with deep roots in their land and a long tradition of successful farming to continue a valuable way of life - and yet to also stimulate the health of the river and of its salmon population. It was a win-win situation for all involved.”


Guided by their six focus areas, SVCA closely monitors many sources, including real estate advertisements in local newspapers, for land that comes on the market. In 2001, the SVCA noticed an advertisement for 27 acres in Palermo along the Sheepscot in one of the focus areas. SVCA purchased the property and, two years year later, acquired an adjoining 56-acre parcel – providing 76 acres for the new Palermo preserve. Both of these acquisitions were facilitated by grants from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and the Maine Atlantic Salmon Commission.


Back at the Palermo site, John Wentzel is packing up his chainsaw. The trail crew gathers up rakes and clippers and loads them into John's truck. “This is a really nice piece of land,” John tells us. “We have a nice variety of wetlands, beautiful stream frontage and some workable acreage for creating a demonstration project for sustainable forestry management. It's been a lot of fun to lay out the trails here. I think when it opens to the public, we're going to see a really favorable reaction.”


Work will continue on the trails during June and July (volunteers are always welcome.) With grants from both the MBNA Foundation and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Fisheries Salmon Fund, educational kiosks will be placed at strategic spots – explaining, among other things, the importance of the property for the river's salmon population. In August, the land will be ready for its grand opening to the public.