Law That Gave Us White Mountain National Forest Turns 100
On March 1st, 100 years ago President William Howard Taft signed the Weeks Act into law.
The historic legislation led to the creation of our eastern national forests.
Much of the effort to pass the law began here in New Hampshire, as a reaction to widespread deforestation.
New Hampshire Public Radio’s Amy Quinton has this look back.
Some historians dub the Weeks Act one of the most important pieces of environmental legislation in the 20thcentury.
Char Miller is Director of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College in Claremont, California.
“It established for the first time, especially on environmental issues, that the federal government and the states had the capacity to forge a new relationship and that new relationship was based on the federal government buying private land which it’d never done before and use that land to create national forests, which it had also never done before in the East 1:50
The end result has been the creation of more than 26 million acres of national forests in the eastern United States.
But to truly understand why the Weeks Act is so important, one has to understand what New Hampshire was like at the end of the 19thcentury.
At St. Kieran Arts Center in Berlin, a photography exhibit commemorating the 100thanniversary of the Act, illustrates just that.
Historian Marcia Schmidt Blaine with Plymouth State University points to a picture of what was once Zealand, New Hampshire in the White Mountains near the headwaters of the Pemigewasset.
Logging tycoon J-E Henry owned a 10-thousand acre tract there in the 1880’s.
“this was one of JE Henry’s towns where he had lots of people come, created a town, people lived there, they had a school, they had stores, then when he had taken all the wood he could out of the area and moved on to Lincoln, the town died.”
Historian Linda Upham-Bornstein with PSU says unscrupulous sawmill loggers would decimate the forests.
It’s hard to believe these days, but even Crawford Notch was clear cut.
“ The saw mill loggers, the J-E Henry’s were only there to clear cut, cut the logs, saw mill them, ship them on the trains to Portland or Boston, they did not care what happened to the forests after they were gone, they made their money and left.”
And they often left slash behind, the remnant branches which easily became kindling for fire.
In the late 1800’s, the fires came with a vengeance, burning thousands of acres.
Schmidt-Blaine points to another picture in the exhibit.
“So you’ve got a picture of an area that had been burned several times and what you see are the remaining rocks, because the fire was so dramatic and so hot that it burned everything that was flammable.”
The exhibit describes a blackened, gnarled landscape.
And since the trees were gone, nothing held back the water from rains and snow.
Flooding was commonplace.
In 1896, the flooding was so bad along the Merrimack River that the largest cotton mill in the nation, Amoskeag Mills in Manchester, had to close, laying off six-thousand workers.
Politicians and the public back then were reluctant to interfere with private property rights.
But the Reverend John E Johnson, an Episcopal missionary, came to North Woodstock and changed some minds.
Historian Char Miller says Johnson saw poor New Hampshire families struggling to survive because of the timber industry.
“In the end they did what lumber companies did everywhere, which was to leave when the getting was good and what they left behind were communities that had depended upon that labor but were left adrift once they disappeared. Worse, those who stayed had very little ability to recover economically, and those were the people that Johnson was most deeply worried about.”
In 1900 Johnson wrote a pamphlet calling the New Hampshire Land Company the Boa Constrictor of the White Mountains.
The pamphlet was quickly picked up by the New England Homestead magazine and reached some 40-thousand homes.
PSU Historian Marcia Schmidt Blaine.
“What he did was to create one villain, one group you could look at and name that’s the problem, that’s what we need to end, and he woke up enough people that in 1900 he wrote it and in 1901 the Society for the Protection of NH Forests were created because of his work.”
The first thing the Society for the Protection of NH Forests did was to hire forester Philip Ayres.
A well-educated historian, organizer and publicist, Ayres became the main lobbyist to stop the deforestation and create a national forest.
He took pictures and showed them to whoever would listen.
Schmidt-Blaine says he talked to timber owners, logging operators, mill workers, tourists and assembled a coalition of supporters.
“He went to grange meetings, he went to women’s clubs, he went to anybody that would listen to him and talk to him and he found out what people wanted and that was to have a working forest.”
In 1903, a drought helped Ayres appeal for immediate federal action.
He wrote in his journal: “May 15th, Whitefield, town encircled by forest fires. June 3rd, Groveton, Mills closed and all men gone to fight fire. June 5th, Grange, showers of fine ashes constantly falling.”
By the time it was over, 200-thousand acres of what was left of New Hampshire’s forests burned.
That’s when the Congressional battle began says Schmidt-Blaine.
“In 1903, New Hampshire’s Congressmen introduced the first bill to save the White Mountains, there was also a bill to save the southern Appalachians, and at first those two were working at odds”
Eventually, by joining forces with the southern interests, a bill to allow the federal purchase of forests was born.
But getting it through Congress was tough and took years.
The House Speaker at the time, Joe Cannon, had famously said, “Not one scent for scenery.”
Enter John Wingate Weeks, for which the bill was named.
He was a Massachusetts congressman who was born and had a family home in Lancaster, New Hampshire.
Historian Char Miller says Weeks played a coalescing role.
“He becomes the face of a bill that’s obviously going to benefit his old neighborhood. I think it’s also valuable that he was a banker and Cannon could stand back and say, ‘well the economic interests say this is okay and its going to be framed around economic language’. Weeks just cut away all of that aesthetic language.”
Weeks’ bill simply said that Congress would appropriate funds to purchase land for the conservation and improvement of the navigability of a river.
The bill didn’t mention the Appalachians or the White Mountains.
And so proponents could say not one cent was going for scenery, it was going to promote commerce by protecting the flow of rivers.
The bill passed and President Taft signed it.
In 1913, the federal government bought its first tract of land in what would become North Carolina’s Pisgah National Forest.
Later that year, federal officials began buying land in the White Mountains.
The Weeks Act authorized federal purchases of land which eventually became 48 national forests.
“This is a picture of John Weeks around the time of the Weeks Act…”
As Schmidt Blaine walks through the centennial exhibit she says the east would look different today if it weren’t for the Weeks Act.
“It created a working forest, one that we can recreate in and we can enjoy but that people can still survive based on the forest.”
And as Thad Guldbrandsen, Director of the Center for Rural Partnerships describes it, without New Hampshire, the Weeks Act may never have happened.
“It’s this landscape that inspired it, it’s the unique relationship between economy and environment that people here understand that made all of it possible.”
The photo exhibit “Protecting the Forests: the Weeks Act of 1911” will be at the St. Kieran Arts Center in Berlin until March 31st.
After that it will be at the National Forest Service in Campton.
For NHPR news, I’m Amy Quinton.