Friends and former colleagues are mourning the death of Clinton “Bill” Townsend, a tireless advocate for river restoration who helped lead many of the state’s environmental organizations over the decades.
Townsend, of Canaan, died Thursday at age 89, his family said. He was a Skowhegan attorney but was best known for his decades-long involvement in environmental issues – particularly river health – and his leadership of many of the organizations and boards that work to protect Maine’s natural resources.
“He had this terrific internal drive and he was involved with history-making initiatives in Maine that transformed how we think about rivers and the life they contain – the fisheries,” said Landis Hudson, executive director of Maine Rivers, one of the organizations that Townsend helped to lead.
Over a 50-year span, Townsend also was president of the Natural Resources Council of Maine during its early years and served on the boards of the Maine chapter of The Nature Conservancy, the Atlantic Salmon Federation and the Somerset Woods Trustees.
A lifelong fisherman, Townsend was a passionate advocate for cleaner rivers and restoring fish passage around the dams that have blocked or impeded migratory fish – such as Atlantic salmon and alewives – in some cases for centuries. He helped lead the effort to remove the Edwards Dam on the Kennebec River as well as numerous smaller dams, worked on the creation of the Allagash Wilderness Waterway, and was a prominent voice against the massive Big-A and Dickey-Lincoln hydroelectric proposals.
Townsend also served for a decade on the board of the Land for Maine’s Future program, served on the Land Use Regulation Commission and represented the United States on the North Atlantic Salmon Conservation Organization.
“There is no river in Maine that has not been touched and improved by his work,” Hudson said.
A New York City native, Townsend moved to Maine with his wife, Louise, in 1957. He would later recount in interviews how he was prompted to get involved in environmental causes by the polluted state of Maine’s major rivers in the 1950s and 1960s.
Eliza Townsend said her father was passionate about “running water” and was proud of his involvement in many of those big-picture efforts, whether restoring fish passage in the Kennebec or opposing the Big-A dam on the Penobscot. As a child, Eliza Townsend remembers camping “everywhere” and said her parents made a point of visiting every corner of the state.
“His impact was enormous in so many ways, but it was fueled by his passion for this state. He wanted everyone else to have the same opportunity to enjoy this state the way that we did,” said Eliza Townsend, a former state lawmaker and commissioner of the Maine Department of Conservation. She now serves as executive director of the Maine Women’s Lobby and the Maine Women’s Policy Center.
Even in his elder years, Townsend was a fairly common face – and voice – at legislative hearings and public meetings, pushing to restore alewives to the St. Croix River or weighing in on Plum Creek Timber Co.’s development plans for the Moosehead Lake region. He and his wife also were heavily involved in civic activities in their hometown of Canaan and in the Skowhegan area.
Lisa Pohlmann, executive director of the Natural Resources Council of Maine, which Townsend joined in the early 1960s after reading about the fledgling organization in the newspaper, called Townsend “a giant” in Maine’s conservation movement.
“Bill fought for clean water, clear skies, a toxic-free environment, rich habitat for our native wildlife, and access to the outdoors for Maine people and visitors to our state,” Pohlmann wrote on the council’s website. “Maine is a better place because of Bill, and so many of us are better people for having known him.”
U.S. Sen. Angus King of Maine referred to Townsend as “a dear friend and one of my most treasured mentors.”
“He was a man of enormous intellect and even greater character who fought tirelessly to deliver justice for people across Maine and who worked unceasingly to preserve and protect Maine lands and resources for the enjoyment of future generations,” King said in a prepared statement. “I will miss Bill tremendously, but am grateful for his many years of friendship and counsel, and more importantly, for all that he has done on behalf of our beloved state.”