Stories in Maine

Saving the St. John

20 years after the biggest land deal TNC had ever done, we're still making history with innovative conservation in the St. John River Forest.

A brilliant orange sunrise over the St. John River.
A Great Beginning Sunrise on the St. John River © Hadley Couraud/TNC
Saving the St. John (6:59) Twenty years ago, a landmark effort proved that a dedicated group of caring, resourceful and generous people can accomplish conservation at a scale never thought possible before.
Logo for the 20th anniversary of the St. John River Forest Project.
St. John 20th Anniversary © TNC

Gem of the North Woods

The St. John River Forest is a very special place in Maine, supporting previously unknown populations of rare plants, the elusive Canada lynx, and important native fish that are increasingly under pressure in Maine from non-native species. Among natural discoveries made here are the largest population of the purple false-oats plant in the United States, stands of black spruce over 300 years old and a dozen rare dragonfly species.

The upper St. John River flows for 130 miles without passing a single settlement, growing from a small stream above Baker Lake to a major river before crossing into Canada. This has long been an important river for Native people, and early European settlers made a difficult living establishing now-vanished settlements and logging camps along the banks. For thousands of years, people have plied its remote waters and hunted, fished and camped along its shores.

Today, the upper St. John is truly one of the great wilderness canoe rivers in the eastern United States.

A Landmark in Conservation

In December 1998, The Nature Conservancy had a decision to make. All around northern Maine, timberland was changing hands rapidly and the once-thriving forest industry was going through tremendous change.

Earlier in the summer, International Paper (IP) announced it was selling 185,000 acres along the St. John River in northwestern Maine. A forestland investor and The Nature Conservancy bid to purchase the property, which included 35 miles along the river. Our plan was to purchase the river corridor for conservation while our timber partner purchased the working forest land.

A month later, we received great news from IP—they accepted our $35 million bid! But by this time, our partner had put its money, about $30 million, into another project. Could we take a giant leap of faith to conserve one of Maine’s most remote and magical places on our own?

How could we not?

Quote: Kate Dempsey

Twenty years ago, The Nature Conservancy took a bold leap of faith on this river. As a result, these lands and waters are now at the center of some very innovative conservation management techniques.

Kate Dempsey Maine State Director

Closing Our Biggest Deal Yet

The Nature Conservancy had never made a purchase for that much land anywhere in the country at that time, and the $35 million price tag was an enormous funding commitment.

But we were buoyed by remarkable supporters who believed in protecting Maine’s great landscapes, especially in this time of increasingly rapid forest land sales in the state. So, together with this group of caring and resourceful people, The Nature Conservancy acted at a scale never thought possible before.

And by quickly raising the funds needed to acquire the land—for conservation and for forest management—we showed the nation that there is a path forward to ensure that the environment and the economy can work in tandem for the benefit of both.

"Twenty years ago, The Nature Conservancy took a bold leap of faith on this river," says Kate Dempsey, state director for The Nature Conservancy in Maine. "As a result, these lands and waters are now at the center of some very innovative conservation management techniques."

A person walking along the edge of the river.
Summer Stroll: Exploring the shore of the St. John River in Maine. © Hadley Couraud/TNC

Managing the St. John Forest Today

This forest is a vibrant working landscape that has sustained wildlife and people for thousands of years. And the river is the lifeblood of this amazing place. Twenty years ago, we made a bold decision to demonstrate how conservation can work to address the challenges of the day. Our work in the St. John continues to exemplify that same spirit of innovation and leadership—strengths that we need more than ever to find natural solutions to the challenges we face today.

Under The Nature Conservancy’s ownership, carefully designed and sustainable timber harvests continue to help maintain regional economic opportunities, encourage new forest-products development and capture and hold carbon within the products themselves.

About half of the property—roughly 80,000 acres—is designated as reserve land, where natural processes are uninterrupted by human management and disruption. Set aside for conservation and study of Maine’s ecosystems, reserve land provides important information about how old-growth forests respond to natural challenges and support wildlife species.

Maintaining Hardwood Forest Through Syrup Production

Recently we've added maple syrup production in the upper St. John forest. A new sugarbush lease works to protect ideal habitat for warblers and songbirds while generating revenue and producing a sweet and sustainable forest treat. Taps are expected to exceed 60,000 within two years—enough to produce 25,000 gallons of maple syrup or more each year!

Aerial view of autumn trees in the St. John forest.
The Power of Trees: Autumn colors begin to paint the St. John River Forest. © Joshua Royte/TNC

Capturing Carbon

And this past year, The Nature Conservancy enrolled a significant portion of the lands in a forest carbon storage project. This involves a long-term commitment by TNC to increase carbon stocking, accelerate the restoration of the forest, and increase the acreage dedicated to ecological reserves. The project also demonstrates the opportunity for landowners to blend carbon and timber revenue to achieve their objectives.

"Our hope is that this carbon project will demonstrate alternative ways to realize economic value in Maine's North Woods," explains Dempsey. "A balance of ecological conservation, sustainable forest-product production, carbon storage, and outdoor recreation really all comes together here."

Celebrate the Past by Conserving for the Future

Thanks to generous supporters, we continue to benefit from what nature provides at the St. John River forest. Support The Nature Conservancy in Maine and help us ensure that future generations will continue to experience and cherish Maine's forests and rivers just as we have.