Places We Protect

St. John River Forest


A broad river surrounded by grasses and trees, with a solitary person on the shore in the distance.
Walk along the St. John A visitor explores along the bank of the St. John River in Maine. © Hadley Couraud/TNC

The St. John River Forest protects the free-flowing St. John River, renowned for its remote paddling and camping experience.



In the remote forests of northern Maine, the upper St. John River–or Wolastoq–flows for 130 miles without passing a single settlement. The St. John grows from a stream at the St. John Ponds to a major river before crossing into Canada and stands as one of the great wilderness canoe rivers in the eastern U.S. This is an important river for Maliseet and other Wabanaki people, and early European settlers made a difficult living establishing now-vanished settlements and logging camps along the banks. For generations, Mainers and visitors have plied its remote waters and hunted, fished, and camped along its shores. 

In December 1998, The Nature Conservancy purchased 185,000 acres, including 35 miles of frontage on the upper St. John River, from International Paper for $35 million. This acquisition, the largest carried out by TNC anywhere in the U.S. at the time and the largest conservation land purchase in the northeast ever, changed the way much of the conservation community approaches land protection. A massive $10 million fundraising effort in just six weeks ensured the deal could move forward and proved that a dedicated group of caring, resourceful and generous people can accomplish conservation at a scale never thought possible before.

Protecting Maine Heritage

TNC has been working with private landowners to protect this great river, from the headwaters to the small town of Allagash—more than 100 miles of wilderness paddling. To date, 70 miles of the corridor have been protected on both banks, and 6 miles on one bank.

An Ecological Gem

Over the years, our ecologists have made findings that confirm the wisdom of our bold investment: previously unknown populations of rare plants, sightings of Canada lynx with kittens, and ponds with full complements of native minnow populations (important in a state where water bodies are increasingly compromised by alien species). Among the finds was the largest population of purple false-oats in the United States, stands of black spruce over 300 years old, and a dozen rare dragonfly species—one entirely new to science.

Providing places for nature to thrive

About half—80,000 acres—of the Upper St. John Forest 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. And big, old trees hold a lot of carbon.

Capturing Carbon

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

Producing maple syrup and maintaining mature hardwood forest

Recently, TNC has 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 a sweet and sustainable forest product. Taps are expected to exceed 60,000 within two years—enough to produce 25,000 gallons of maple syrup annually!

Modeling conservation-minded timber harvest

Under TNC’s ownership, limited, carefully designed and sustainable timber harvests help maintain regional economic opportunities, encourage new forest products development, and capture and hold carbon within the products themselves.




Paddle and camp along the free-flowing St. John River.


185,000 acres

Explore our work in Maine

The upper St. John River in Maine offers a unique, remote, and unspoiled wilderness experience for intrepid paddlers of all ages. Early spring is often the best time to travel down river, taking advantage of higher water levels from the snowmelt and spring rains. A series of campsites along the river allow visitors to enjoy several days travelling downstream. These are maintained by North Maine Woods, a non-profit organization that collects user fees and manages access and primitive facilities in Maine's northern forest. Unlike its more well-known tributary, the Allagash Wilderness Waterway, the St. John in Maine has no dams to block its course or control its flow, and the shorelines, while equally pristine, are not yet entirely protected.


  • Visitors must log in and out at a North Maine Woods (NMW) checkpoint on each visit and pay NMW fees that cover the cost of recreation management.
  • Camping is allowed only at designated NMW camping areas; see the NMW website for details.
  • The property is open to the public for hunting and fishing, according to state laws and NMW policies; hunting by permission applies to Corner Pond Reserve.
  • There are no developed hiking trails.
  • All motorized vehicles are prohibited except on existing gravel roads.
  • Bicycles and horses are prohibited.
  • Carry your trash out.
  • Build fires only in authorized steel fire-rings at designated campsites. Campfire permits from the Maine Forest Service are required at designated sites. Call the Maine Forest Service for details.
  • Logging vehicles will be on the roads. Drive slowly and carefully with lights on; trucks have the right of way.
  • The Upper St. John Forest is a remote place with no services available. Plan carefully for safety and emergencies. Bring extra fuel, spare tires, and a tire repair kit.