In 1956, Maine became the fourth state to establish a chapter of the Conservancy. Author Rachel Carson and a handful of Maine citizens met that spring to explore ways to combat the habitat destruction they saw resulting from unchecked development. Carson suggested establishing a local chapter of The Nature Conservancy because the organization was, in her words, “doing something practical about actually preserving places."
The Conservancy’s new volunteer board in Maine considered potential acquisitions from the Allagash River in the north to Casco Bay in the south. They discussed "virgin timber" and river dams and tax exemption. In the first five years, these volunteers asked questions that have occupied the organization for 50 years: What natural areas does Maine offer? How will the Conservancy’s land stewardship differ from that of public agencies? How will land conservation priorities be set? What is the proper balance between habitat protection and economic development?
The story of the Conservancy in Maine includes many names, many lessons learned and hundreds of projects. By 1998, the Conservancy had protected a total of 110,000 acres at some 175 sites in Maine, including the 5,000-acre Big Reed Forest Reserve (the largest contiguous old-growth forest in the northeast), the 1,600-acre Great Wass Island Preserve and a 40,000-acre deal negotiated on behalf of the state, most of which established the Namahkanta Unit south of Baxter State Park. The chapter had also completed its largest capital campaign: a $5 million, five-year effort with the protection of 2,000 acres at Waterboro Barrens as its centerpiece.
The Defining Moment for Maine Conservation
But in the fall of 1998, the Conservancy was presented with an unparalleled opportunity: the chance to purchase 185,000 acres of forestland in northwest Maine that encompassed 40 running miles of the Upper St. John River. The price tag was $35 million, and the opportunity was beyond the scale of any project in the chapter’s history. In fact, the price tag was twice as much as the Conservancy had ever committed to any other project in the world.
And yet, just two years later, trustees, members and staff celebrated the completion of the For Maine Forever campaign, which raised $57 million to acquire the St. John River property and for ongoing work at Mount Agamenticus, Kennebec Estuary, Cobscook Bay, Saco River and other priorities statewide. The very boldness of the enterprise seemed to power the effort, but underlying that was the enormous dedication, personal financial support and leadership of the chapter’s board.
A Model for Environmental Protection
The St. John River project served as a model for the entire organization. Today, the St. John lands contain 45,000 acres of forever wild reserve. And the remaining acreage has become a laboratory for testing sustainable forest management practices at a scale that even commercial timberland owners appreciate.
While the chapter pursued its first capital campaign, it also co-led a campaign for public conservation dollars. In 1987, a voter-approved $35 million bond created Maine’s Land For Maine's Future program. When those bonds were expended, the chapter again took on a leadership role, encouraging voters to approve a $50 million bond in 1999. Today, public fundraising is a critical piece of the Conservancy’s work, with state and federal grants and awards leveraging private donations.
Large Conservation Becomes More Common
Following the success along the St. John River, projects encompassing larger acreage became more common for the Conservancy. Here in Maine, the organization led efforts to protect 8,600 acres in Parsonsfield and to preserve the entire 25,000-acre Machias River corridor. We also led coalition efforts at the Kennebec Estuary and around Mount Agamenticus.
Then, in 2002, the Conservancy undertook another groundbreaking adventure: the protection of 241,000 acres of the Katahdin Forest directly abutting Maine’s Baxter State Park. As part of this project, the Conservancy took title to 41,000 acres of the spectacular Debsconeag Lakes Wilderness and acquired a conservation easement on an additional 195,000 acres.
Although the acreage was large, the deal’s most innovative aspect was the way it was structured. To allow the landowner, Great Northern Paper, to transfer the land and easement, the Conservancy essentially became one of the company’s mortgage holders. While financing for-profit companies has been anything but standard operating procedure, this first-of-its-kind deal proved the only way to protect the largest concentration of remote ponds in the Northeast and the dense forests that surround Baxter State Park.
Working in Partnership
One of the Conservancy’s greatest strengths is its ability to bring partners to the table. Projects often include anywhere from two to eight partners — local, state or federal. Some partnerships, like the Conservancy’s participation in the Maine Wetlands Coalition or the growing coalition around Mount Agamenticus, are long-term relationships. The chapter has also reached beyond its borders, providing financial and staff resources to Conservancy programs in Australia, Indonesia, Mexico, Chile and the Dominican Republic.
The Future of Conservation in Maine
With this record of accomplishment, it may seem the Conservancy's greatest challenges in Maine are behind it. In truth, they lie ahead. Massive land sales in the North signal an almost literal shifting of the earth. Never before has conservation been more clearly intertwined with economic and social issues. In southern Maine, sprawl and other market forces are fragmenting wildlife habitat: time is running out to pull together conservation areas of any appreciable size. And from melting ice caps to depleted fisheries, the global threats we face are moving more rapidly than ever before.
Recognizing that traditional methods will take the organization only so far, our staff are now involved in initiatives to combat climate change and invasive species, establish sustainable forest management, ensure the health of marine habitats, and more.
Now is the time to re-envision what conservation can, and must, do in Maine and around the world to preserve the spectacular diversity of life.