Jeremy Bell’s title with The Nature Conservancy in Maine is aquatic habitat restoration manager. If you are like us, this may conjure up a vision of someone in a wetsuit planting kelp under the sea. But what Bell does is worry about barriers to fish and wildlife movement – like the aging culverts that run under roadways in virtually every part of the state. Many of the culverts that present obstacles to fish are also susceptible to being washed out. With Maine’s rivers and creeks running very high because of the record snowfall, we called him up to talk floods, fish migration and how the view from his office window inspires him.

IF THE CREEK DON’T RISE: It’s a tough season for culverts, isn’t it? “Any time in the spring when you have the ice getting ready to go out and the big spring rains, that puts a lot of strain on the infrastructure,” Bell said. “This is the time when that is most possible but really, it is possible any time of the year.”

BY THE NUMBERS: The Nature Conservancy has been leading an initiative to assess every stream barrier in Maine for the last six years. The nonprofit has already studied more than 15,000 road-stream crossings (3,000 just last summer) and found that they impede fish runs and wildlife movement more than 50 percent of the time. An obstacle to fish, like a difference in height from the end of the culvert to the natural stream bed below, can also lead to flooding. Water pounding through a tunnel creates a waterfall effect, which then causes erosion below and weakens the foundation of the road above.

HELP? PLEASE? Maine voters approved a measure in November that would provide $5.4 million to upgrade stream crossings across Maine, allowing such species as brook trout and alewives to thrive. Implementation of that measure, the Clean Water and Safe Communities Act, is still in the development stages but “would be a huge boost to the towns wanting to put in these structures,” Bell said. He estimates that 1,000 culverts in the state could, if upgraded to the stream-smart model, make an immediate difference in habitat for fish and wildlife. The goal is to chip away at them at a rate of 50 a year. Each costs between $35,000 to $150,000, depending on the size of the culvert and type of road, according to Bell.

WHAT IS A SMART STREAM? How can we make a smarter culvert? Bell explains that instead of a circular culvert (think metal tunnel), the new and improved engineering for culverts is like a half pipe, which is placed across the natural stream bed, making it less subject to erosion in high water. These stream-smart projects can cost more, and Bell’s job includes securing federal and state grants to help offset the cost to communities. “If you are spending taxpayers’ money, it sounds better to install something that is cheaper,” Bell said. “But if the road fails, that is a really expensive fix.”

RESUMÉ: Bell, who has a master’s degree in environmental studies from Evergreen State College, has been in the aquatic habitat business for 15 years, including 10 years at Massachusetts’ Department of Fish & Game. He describes himself as “a little bit of a nomad,” who was born in Pennsylvania and has lived in Cincinnati, Denver and Seattle but never in Maine until about a year ago. When the opportunity to work for The Nature Conservancy came up, it wasn’t a hard choice. “You know, the lure of coming to Maine,” Bell said. “The big rivers and the amazing habitat potential.” And also the people, he said.


NOT SUCH A HARD SELL: How so? we wondered. What’s different about Mainers? Bell has to convey the dual benefits of restoration of natural waterways. Flooding affects the economy and can create serious property damage. Projects that help prevent flooding aren’t such a hard sell. But fish have friends here, too. “Maine has a very strong cultural heritage of hunting and fishing,” Bell said. “So when you talk about the fish passing, that means a lot to them too.”

FISH TALES: Out on the road, talking to municipal officials, including many Department of Public Works managers, Bell brings visual aids. Like a map that shows how Maine has the best habitat for Eastern brook trout of any state from Virginia north. “I showed this map to a group of DPW managers and about a third of the people in the room sit up and start looking closely at the map,” Bell said. “One guy raises his hand, asks if I can give him the exact locations.” Everywhere he goes to talk about fish habitat, he said Mainers start pulling out pictures of the fish they caught. “Or they tell me a fish story.”

NAYSAYERS: Does he encounter some who don’t much care what happens to the fish? Sure. “If I give a talk, there will always be a couple of naysayers there who question the value of doing the project that way,” Bell said. “But in the end I only work with people who are motivated to do this. We never dictate to anyone.” Most of the time when he calls up a town to talk culverts, he said officials are interested, at least in the flood resiliency aspect. “But the reality might be that they don’t have the capacity to add an extra project to their plate. It might not be the worst problem in town.” On the agenda for this summer? An approximately $50,000 project to replace a culvert in Auburn, with a work force supplied by the city and a $25,000 contribution from The Nature Conservancy.

A ROOM WITH A VIEW: Bell dreams of seeing wild Atlantic salmon jumping in Maine’s streams. In the meantime, his office in Brunswick’s Fort Andross (the Nature Conservancy’s Maine headquarters) gives him a better than decent view of Androscoggin River wildlife. “I’ve seen the sturgeon jumping out there,” he said. “It’s very impressive.” And if he can’t spot the alewives themselves,”You know when the alewives are running because there are just birds galore there waiting for a snack.”

HOPE SPRINGS ETERNAL: The Androscoggin’s steady recovery from legendary pollution inspires Bell. “It just shows you how resilient that the rivers can be. Sometimes it seems daunting, but then you look back at the history to see how bad things were in the past and how much better things can be. That is why I wanted to come here and work on this issue, because there is so much room for improvement.”

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