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In the remote forests of northern Maine, the upper St. John River flows for 130 miles without passing a single settlement. Gathering strength from its tributary streams and rivers, the St. John grows mile by mile from an oversized stream at the outlet of Baker Lake to a major river full of challenges and surprises.
When the warmth of spring finds its way to the remote northwestern corner of Maine's North Woods, the river becomes an awesome spectacle: mammoth slabs of ice tumble downstream, scouring the shoreline, sweeping away trees and reshaping the river’s course.
In the wake of this violent display, the waters run high and fast, making the St. John the most rewarding wilderness canoe experience in the East. More fearsome rapids do exist, but no river east of the Mississippi offers more miles of solitude, wildlife and adventure. The chance to meet a moose midstream is just one of the river’s allures.
Ten years ago, The Nature Conservancy in Maine closed a historic deal to purchase 185,000 acres of forest bordering 40 miles of this remote wild river. This conservation purchase, groundbreaking in its scope and vision, has enabled a vast landscape of plant and animal communities to thrive in a way they couldn’t on isolated pieces of preserved forest.
Beneath the scampering feet of American martens and otters and the plodding paws of black bears, a contingent of rare plants sends pale shoots up through the jumble of rock and gravel. In fact, stretches of the St. John support the second highest concentration of rare plants in Maine — only Mount Katahdin can boast more.
Conservancy staff and other scientists discovered the largest population of purple false-oats in the United States here, as well as stands of black spruce over 300 years old and a dozen rare dragonflies — one of which was entirely new to science. The land also offers prime habitat for the endangered Canada lynx, and ponds with full complements of native minnow populations (rare in a state where so many water bodies are compromised by alien species).
The Conservancy's vision for the upper St. John River watershed is one in which its most important natural features and recreational lands are permanently preserved for the people of Maine, and where compatibly managed forests provide habitat for Maine's wildlife and essential economic opportunities for the region.
With significant portions of the land in forever-wild status, the Conservancy also manages sustainable forestry operations within areas of the forest. This work serves as a model of sustainable silviculture that the Conservancy hopes can be applied worldwide, and serves as a large-scale example of how nonprofit conservation groups can partner successfully with for-profit businesses.
Because the area is so large and the Conservancy’s ecological data on the site so extensive, the St. John River Forest offers valuable research opportunities. For example, the Conservancy and the University of Maine have partnered on a Canada lynx and American marten research project in the Forest that will help develop and test forest management techniques designed to ensure habitat for these bellwether species.
Since 1998, the Conservancy has nearly doubled the miles of protection along the Upper St. John River, extending protection to 70 miles along the St. John and its headwaters. Still, there are miles to go in the Conservancy's quest to protect the upper St. John. The Conservancy’s ultimate goal here is to preserve the St. John River corridor from its headwaters to where it meets the Allagash River.