VEAZIE (AP) – Interior Secretary Gail Norton joined Gov. John Baldacci, Penobscot Indian Chief Barry Dana and other officials Friday in signing an agreement that will lead to the removal of two dams on the Penobscot River.

Under the agreement, the Veazie and Great Works dams would be eliminated and a fish passage would likely be constructed at the Howland Dam, opening up 500 miles of river habitat to salmon and other sea-run fish.

Participants lauded the agreement as an example of the private sector working with conservation groups and the government agencies to help the environment.

“The Penobscot model is a partnership model for the 21st century of how environmental protection, energy production and economic opportunities can go hand-in-hand,” Norton said in a statement.

The document that will guide the sale of the three dams will now be considered by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in Washington, which oversees hydroelectric projects across the nation.

Under the agreement, the Penobscot River Restoration Trust would pay Pennsylvania-based PPL Corp. $25 million for the dams. Another $25 million would be needed to fully implement the plan.

State, federal and private money will be raised for the project, officials said. So far, the federal government has contributed $400,000.

The trust plans to remove the Veazie and Howland dams and to petition to decommission the Howland Dam. A fish passage would be constructed at the Howland Dam if feasible; if not, the agreement allows for the removal of that dam as well. PPL also will improve fish passages at four additional dams.

For its part, PPL will be allowed to boost power at six existing dams in addition to receiving a payment for the three dams.

Supporters say the significance of the project can hardly be overstated in terms of helping to restore salmon runs.

Hundreds of thousands of Atlantic salmon used to swim from the ocean to New England rivers each year to spawn. But the region’s entire seasonal run has averaged little more than 1,000 fish for the last several years, according to official counts.

Atlantic salmon was listed in 2000 as an endangered species in eight Maine river, including a tributary of the Penobscot.

Coalition members say the project will help to restore wild salmon runs by allowing them to reach their spawning habitat.

Penobscot Chief Barry Dana described it as “the most important natural resource project the Penobscot Nation has been involved with.”

“Reconnecting the Penobscot River and our reservation to the Atlantic Ocean repairs an important cycle of nature that historically allowed our tribe to survive and prosper,” Dana said.

AP-ES-06-25-04 1515EDT

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