While proponents tout the toll-road Gorham Connector as promising to shorten commutes and relieve traffic pressure in Greater Portland, there has already been substantial pushback to the concept. Regardless of how much (or for how long) travel-based advantage the new roadway might bring, as proposed it will have pronounced, unambiguously negative effects to the area.

Brook trout swim in the Presumpscot River in 2021 after being released by Gov. Janet Mills and representatives of the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Maine is known for its sense of place. Many components contribute to what makes the state unique and desirable. Among these is the built environment, such as the 13th-generation Smiling Hill Farm in Westbrook, which the proposed route threatens to erode, if not entirely extinguish, as an economically viable vestige of Maine’s once robust agricultural heritage. Others have amply sounded the alarm about this issue.

But the route introduces other threats to the more naturalistic landscape. Starting at Smiling Hill Farm and running south-southeasterly to I-295 is a five-mile section of Red Brook that mostly nestles in dense forest. Between County Road and Running Hill Road, in particular, Red Brook occupies one of the few contiguous undeveloped riverine stretches in southern Maine. While unassuming in scale, Red Brook is nevertheless remarkable for supporting one of the last remaining native populations of brook trout in this part of the state.

The proposed road will immediately abut the river, sitting nearly on its banks, for as much as a mile south of the County Road Interchange. This will degrade habitat, destroying the trees whose overhanging foliage provides shade and cooling effects for these temperature-sensitive fish and creates shelter from predators. It will make barren riparian shoreline that supports the aquatic and terrestrial insects that provide the primary trout food sources. The road itself will also contribute oil, salt and other runoff to the river, polluting the water. As a result of these factors, this connector will likely exterminate this population of brook trout.

Why should we care about a small river and its brook trout?

Although this is not the official state fish, the fishing community widely considers it the prize species to catch, with so-called wild populations assuming even more cherished status. Brook trout provide a link across generations and cultural traditions and belong to everyone. Human inhabitants of Maine – from the original Wabanaki to European colonists to modern Americans – have been catching these “native” fish for millennia. Other parts of Maine, especially further north and west, have healthy native brook trout fisheries, making Maine highly regarded nationally as a destination to catch them.

The fact that Red Brook, in the heart of Greater Portland, belongs to this orbit is no small feat. Most of the area’s waterways have already succumbed to habitat loss, development, predatory introduced species, warming temperatures and increased flooding due to climate change. Red Brook provides an opportunity for future Mainers who might not have access to brook trout streams further afield to enjoy this natural amenity. Even if you do not care about fishing, this road promises to annihilate a population of one of our state’s heritage species, as well as its scenic habitat that also contributes to Maine’s sense of place.

Peter Mills, the executive director of the Maine Turnpike Authority, claims his organization has “gone to great lengths to minimize impacts to Red Brook,” but clearly it hasn’t gone far enough under the current proposal. There are yet solutions.

Citizens can express concerns at a hearing planned for March or via the Maine Turnpike Authority’s online portal. If the connector is to be built, planners need to re-route to establish a buffer zone between the connector and river – even a few hundred feet would have a positive impact. While less ideal than a complete reworking of the route, this would at least retain the primary shoreline flora and fauna and allow for run-off infrastructure. And we could re-route the road to save Smiling Hill Farm at the same time. Or better yet, we could re-consider the whole project’s merit entirely.

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