The fifty-eight mile long Sheepscot River rises in the hills of West Montville, widens into Sheepscot Pond in Palermo, then falls swiftly over rocks and gravel through the rural Whitefield countryside to the picturesque village of Coopers Mills, where spars for the U.S.S. Constitution were cut. Farther downstream it drops over the Head Tide Dam to mix with the incoming tide, flowing by the delightful antique houses of Alna. After meandering through Sheepscot Village, with its reversing falls, the river slides through Newcastle and bustling Wiscasset, once one of the busiest ports in North America. Now a broad river, it passes Westport, Southport, Hendricks Head Light and Boothbay on its way to the sea.
The 320-square mile watershed contains more than 30 lakes and ponds and about 55 miles of streams. The West Branch, which enters in Whitefield, is approximately 15 miles long and holds Branch Pond in its headwaters. From the head of tide in Alna down to Wiscasset is a five-mile long upper estuary with extensive mud flats and salt marshes.
Major streams enter the river here, the Dyer River in Sheepscot Village and the Marsh River and Deer Meadow Brook just above Wiscasset. The Marsh River/Deer Meadow Marsh complex is a highly productive brackish marsh system (rare in Maine) that harbors many threatened and endangered species.
In the spring, canoes and kayaks blossom with the first wildflowers. As the river races to the ocean, full with the melting snow, excellent rapids appear, especially between King’s Mills and Alna’s Head Tide Dam. As the seasons change, residents and visitors use the river and its banks for bass and trout fishing or turkey and deer hunting. The lazy days of summer find children splashing in the swimming holes with their adult companions splashing away beside them. Cross-country skiing and snowshoeing have become popular winter sports especially with plentiful winter snows.
Life thrives in the river’s rich tidal mud flats, which support rare mussels and plant species. Fish and invertebrates attract osprey, eagles and other mammals that feast on the river’s bounty. Its forested banks provide habitat for moose, white-tailed deer, and many other creatures.
The Sheepscot is one of the last remaining rivers with remnant populations of the nearly extinct native Atlantic salmon. These and other anadromous fish such as striped bass, shad, alewife and eel, return from the sea to spawn in the river’s clean gravel bottom before migrating back to the ocean.
Although much of the Sheepscot River has the state’s highest water quality rating and the upper portions are relatively pristine, the watershed nevertheless faces a variety of problems. These include high nutrient loadings, sediment from eroding banks, elevated temperatures, reduced levels of dissolved oxygen and various sources of pollution.
For over 35 years, the Sheepscot Valley Conservation Association has amassed a record of committed stewardship through its efforts to conserve the natural and historic resources of the watershed. The Association currently has several major programs underway to address the river’s problems and preserve its assets.
The SVCA is both a traditional land trust and a river advocacy group. As a land trust, the Association has acquired 1,005 acres either through purchase or donation and holds conservation easements on an additional 500 acres of land in the watershed. These lands include the 55-acre Griggs Preserve in Newcastle, the oldest of the SVCA’s public preserves. A hiking trail there is open to the public. On the banks of the Sheepscot in the preserve, one can look north and see the reversing falls in Sheepscot Village and south to the railroad bridge in Wiscasset.
The Bass Falls Preserve in Alna was purchased in 1998 with assistance from National Fish & Wildlife Foundation, Land for Maine’s Future, the Sweetwater Trust and the Grand Circle Foundation. The SVCA recently purchased an additional 36 acres abutting the preserve, more than doubling its size. Hiking trails lead through mixed forestlands to the Sheepscot River and an old fishing camp.
The Whitefield Salmon Preserve is located at the confluence of the West Branch and the Main Stem of the Sheepscot. Several miles of trails wind through 56 acres of pine forest and along the river. This property fronts along some of the finest salmon spawning and rearing grounds in the river and a holding pool well known by local fishermen.
The Palermo Preserve is SVCA’s newest and most ecologically diverse property. The preserve is 74 acres and is situated along the upper reaches of the Sheepscot. Several vernal pools, streams and a red maple swamp are located on the property. Approximately 1 mile of trails are complete and a new interpretive trail will be open in 2006.
The SVCA is actively working to protect the Forever Wild Corridor, a three-mile stretch of river from Alna Head Tide to Sheepscot Village. Only three houses are visible from the river in this entire stretch. But since it is located in fast-developing midcoast Maine, preservation of this wild experience is of tremendous importance.
As an advocate for the Sheepscot River, the SVCA has been an active participant in developments affecting the river. From the design and installation of the Maine Yankee nuclear power plant, the redesign of the Wiscasset and Dyer River bridges to the discussions concerning a Wiscasset bypass, the SVCA has been an outspoken advocate for protecting watershed resources.
As a founding member of the Sheepscot River Watershed Council, the SVCA has worked to
restore and protect Atlantic Salmon habitat in the Sheepscot River through restoration and easement and acquisition efforts. Surveys of the riverfront were performed over the past few years, identifying damaged habitats where elevated temperatures have resulted from the removal of tree canopy overhanging the river or where sediments or pollution enter the river.
With funds provided by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection and the Atlantic Salmon Commission, the SVCA is working with private landowners, the Watershed Council and state and federal agencies to restore these sites and to identify and protect riverside land adjacent to critical salmon spawning and nursery habitat.
On Earth Day, 2000, over 200 volunteers planted native shrubs (purchased with funds from the Atlantic Salmon Commission) on the riverbanks at the Maxcy Mills power substation in Whitefield. Restoration of the native buffer on the river will help keep the waters cool at the height of the summer and prevent bank erosion, protecting the adjacent Atlantic Salmon nesting habitat.
The SVCA is entering its eleventh year of monitoring river water quality at over 30 sites on the river above Sheepscot Village. Results from this volunteer program have been used to illustrate the effects of contamination from several overboard discharges that have since been removed. In addition, data from this highly successful volunteer effort have been used to identify areas with elevated water temperature and depressed dissolved oxygen levels, both of which can have serious impacts on salmon and other anadromous fish populations.
In 1999, the SVCA created its Geographic Information System (GIS) Support Center to provide
GIS mapping services at cost to non-profit conservation organizations. Maps are used by these land trusts and environmental groups to enhance conservation planning and land management, attract funders, increase membership, and to document the progress of their land acquisition programs. While the intent was to allow GIS maps to enhance the conservation work of each individual organization, this program has resulted in increased communication among organizations. This has enhanced regional planning and the exchange of techniques
and resulted in several joint projects involving multiple groups.