OLD TOWN (AP) — Demolition of a 200-year-old dam on the Penobscot River began Monday as part of a project that eventually will reopen nearly 1,000 miles of river habitat to Atlantic salmon, shad, river herring and other migratory fish species.

The removal of the 1,353- foot Great Works Dam that spans the river from Old Town to Bradley marks the beginning of the dam dismantling stage of the Penobscot River Restoration Project.

In addition to the Great Works Dam, the $62 million project calls for removing a dam downriver in Veazie and building fish passages upriver at the Howland and Milford dams. In exchange for selling the dams to the Penobscot River Trust, the dams’ owner was allowed to increase electricity production at its other dams.

When the project is completed, it will restore habitat for fish and wildlife, expand outdoor recreational opportunities and support energy production, jobs and economic growth, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar said Monday at a news conference next to the river. The project has been called the biggest river restoration project in the eastern U.S.

“Today is an important milestone for river conservation,” Salazar said.

The project has been in the works for years and represents collaboration among the dams’ owner, state and federal agencies, the Penobscot Indian Nation and conservation groups.

The Penobscot River is the largest river in Maine, but dams for centuries have prevented migratory fish from swimming upriver from the Atlantic Ocean to reach their historical spawning grounds.

For the project, Pennsylvania based PPL Corp. sold three of its dams to the Penobscot River Restoration Trust for about $24 million in private and public funds. In return, PPL was allowed to expand production at its other dams, resulting in a net increase in power production.

PPL later sold most of it hydropower assets in the river’s watershed to Black Bear Hydro Partners LLC, which now operates the dams.

If all goes as planned, the Great Works Dam will be removed by November and the entire project will be completed in 2014. When that happens, populations of 11 migratory fish species, including endangered Atlantic salmon, alewives, shad and herring, are expected to rebound.

The removal of the dams is also expected to restore cultural fishing and paddling traditions for the Penobscot tribe, which has a reservation on Indian Island just north of Old Town. During a ceremony Monday before workers began breaching the dam, tribal elder Butch Phillips said the river is an integral part of the tribe’s culture.

“The ancestors are smiling today,” Phillips said.

Penobscot Chief Kirk Francis said the removal of the dams will reunite the tribe’s fisheries with their historical homeland.

“Bringing back these lost relatives continues the restoration of ancient natural cycles of creation in a river we have been connected to for thousands of years and makes us who we are as a people,” Francis said.

There have been 24 dams removed in Maine, 18 of which have come down since the removal of the Kennebec River’s 917-foot Edwards Dam in 1999, according to American Rivers, a Washington, D.C.- based organization that works to protect and restore rivers.

Besides the hydropower companies and the Penobscot tribe, others involved in the project include the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, American Rivers, Atlantic Salmon Federation, Maine Audubon, Natural Resources Council of Maine, Penobscot River Restoration Trust, The Nature Conservancy and Trout Unlimited.

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