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Vol. 4, No. 3


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The River Advocate

By Andi Rierden, Editor

On a drive through the Vermont countryside during the mid-1950s, Clinton "Bill" Townsend drove alongside a brook through a deep valley. Despite the beauty of the scenery, something looked terribly wrong. Mile upon mile he watched as the brook turned from a deep indigo color, to bright green, then orange. Finally he came upon a woolen mill

Photo courtesy of Louise Townsend
Clinton "Bill" Townsend

"They had been dumping all of their dye batches into the stream," Townsend, a resident of Canaan, Maine, and the president of Facilitators Improving Salmonid Habitat (FISH), recalls. "Without a care about what it was doing to the waters or the wildlife."

In those days, few laws existed to protect the nation's waterways, he continues, adding, "The accepted mindset was, 'black stuff comes out of smokestacks, brown stuff is dumped into rivers.'"

The encounter with the rainbow-colored stream served as one among many epiphanies that propelled Townsend's fervor for protecting rivers into motion. Often referred to by conservationists as the father of Maine's river restoration movement, Townsend is described as a convivial fighter who has worked to take down more dams, and block the construction of new ones, than anyone.

"The reason we still have Atlantic salmon is largely because of Bill Townsend's efforts," says Andy Goode, the U.S. programs director for the Atlantic Salmon Federation (ASF). "He's the proverbial country lawyer who can walk away from battle without burning bridges." 

As one of the early members and a former president of the Natural Resources Council of Maine, Townsend, 73 years old, helped to found the Maine Council of the Atlantic Salmon Federation in 1986 and has received numerous awards for his conservation efforts including ASF's Roll of Honour Award and environmental awards from Down East Magazine and the North Eastern Council Federation of Fly Fishers. 

Raised in New York City, Townsend spent his summers as a child on Cape Ann, Mass., where he learned to fish and savor the outdoors. After graduating from Harvard Law School in 1953, he started working at a law firm in Hartford, Conn., where, he says, "I was stuck in a back room all day looking at tax law."

In 1957, he and his wife Louise and their two-year old son moved to Canaan, population 400, and bought a dairy farm. "Of course everyone in Hartford thought we were nuts," he says.

He later opened his own law office. In 1966, the couple sold the dairy farm and bought 200 acres (81 hectares) of pastured and wooded farmland with an old farmhouse perched on a hill. They have lived there ever since. Moved by the essays of the late Bernard DeVoto, the environmental writer, and appalled at the state of the rivers in Maine, Townsend set out on a mission.

"When I first came to Maine, the Kennebec, the Androscroggin and the Penobscot were open sewers," he recalls. "In the summer the stench was so bad that in Augusta, people had to close their windows. The fumes were so strong they could peel paint off the wall."

After reading an editorial in the Waterville Sentinel in 1960 about the newly formed Natural Resources Council, Townsend joined the group of about six volunteers. Four years later he became the organization's president. In that role, he led the fight to kill the Dickey-Lincoln dam project on the St. John River. The plan called for the construction of two power generating dams that would have ultimately flooded the Allagash River, Townsend said.

In the 1980s, Townsend worked with a coalition of conservation groups that successfully stopped a dam from being built on the west branch of the Penobscot River at Big Ambejac-mockamus Falls, also known as the Big A. The dam would have inundated the Ripogenus Gorge, one of the most scenic river stretches in Maine. 

Other dam projects followed. Then came the Edwards Dam.

"The Kennebec was one of the great salmon rivers of the world," says Townsend, a staunch supporter of placing the Atlantic salmon on the U.S. Endangered Species List. "It supplied humongous volumes of fish to feed the European market in colonial times. Then they built the dam in 1837 and the stock collapsed. It shouldn't have been built in the first place."

When the dam was removed last year, he continues, "It was an absolute thrill watching the backhoe take that last load of dirt away, watching a trickle of water turn into a raging flood. In a matter of weeks the river was beautiful, there was such a change in the channel."

Townsend has also watched the fall of the Grist Mill Dam and two others on the Souadabscook Stream, the Brownville Dam on the Pleasant River and several others. "Lots of people put their shoulder to the wheel," for these projects to happen, he says. 

In March he became president of FISH. The organization buys up old dams and removes them. For the near future, he says, "We've got a lot of projects on the radar screen."

After working nearly half a century on river restoration, Townsend says there is still much to accomplish. Even so, he adds, "People don't even have a clue how far we have come."