Ten years ago, The Nature Conservancy in Maine bought 185,000 acres of forest bordering 40 miles of the St. John River. This purchase set a new bar for the scope and ambition of the Conservancy’s work worldwide and represented a daring moment for the Maine chapter.
The 200,000-acre Opportunity
At the time of the deal in 1998, the privately-held forestry lands of Northern Maine were changing ownership at a dramatic rate. The Conservancy was having no luck getting sellers to the table to talk conservation. Then, in mid-year, International Paper put 200,000 acres along the St. John on the market — in a single day.
The Conservancy teamed up with a timber investor and made an offer. In essence, the Conservancy committed $3 million to purchase a conservation corridor along the St. John, while the timber investor committed $32 million for the remaining acreage. The bid came in third, however, so the Maine chapter moved on to manage other projects.
But just before Thanksgiving, then-State-Director Kent Wommack received a phone call. “The high bidder fell through,” said the voice on the other end. “And International Paper is willing to accept your bid — if the deal can close in six weeks.” Adding to the drama, the timber investor had since committed their funds elsewhere. If the Conservancy wanted to move forward, it would have to come up with the full $35 million.
Kent hung up the phone. Shaking his head, he first asked himself, "How can we possibly do this?" And then, "How can we not?"
With only three weeks to determine whether or not to make what was then the largest investment of Conservancy resources in history and the largest conservation land purchase in the northeastern United States, the Conservancy called on its board of trustees, partners and donors to come up with the funds. The idea was bold and compelling, and they delivered — the St. John River Forest became a reality.
A New Era in Conservation Begins
The purchase signaled a change in the way that The Nature Conservancy in Maine — and worldwide — approached conservation. "It was really the beginning of being able to look at bigger landscapes and recognize that owning small pieces of disconnected lands wasn’t really going to get the job done," says Mike Tetreault, executive director of the Conservancy in Maine.
“We now look at things with a global perspective. There are only a handful of places in the world like this; the opportunities to protect this kind of forest, at this scale, are few and far between.”
The St. John purchase began a wave of large-scale land buys within the Conservancy, from projects in other states and countries to Maine-based deals such as the Katahdin Forest. The Conservancy is now the 14th largest landowner in Maine, and its opportunities continue to grow.
"Now we’re looking, for example, at the Moosehead Lake region – 400,000 acres of conservation linking together a two-million-acre corridor of conservation land," says Tetreault. "So we’ve moved beyond thinking of just isolated, large-scale projects to how they join together to create a truly intact forests. It seems so daunting at first, but with this record of success, you start to see it is possible."