If we could travel back in time 100 years, the landscape we’d see in Northern New Hampshire would be quite different from what it is today.
Many of the mountains that we know as covered with forests, would be stripped bare.
Some would be scarred from recent fires.
What changed much of that landscape was a piece of legislation called the Weeks Act.
The law gave the federal government the right to buy private land….and turn it into our eastern national forests.
That law turns 100 this month.
And to commemorate it, NHPR is taking an in depth look this week at what the law has meant to the White Mountains.
In our first part, NHPR’s Amy Quinton tells stories of several organizations that worked for years to pass the law.
In the late 1800’s, timberland owners didn’t think about forestry as a science.
Forest management was almost unheard of.
Timber barons like J-E Henry would clear cut tens of thousands of acres of land at a time.
The waste left behind was perfect fuel for fire.
Critics called Henry a “woods butcher.”
Jasen Stock, with the New Hampshire Timberland Owners Association, says many loggers had an industrialist view of natural resources.
“if there were trees out there, you’d harvest them just like you would a corn crop, harvest them all, yeah they’ll grow back some time, but we’ve got mills to feed, we’ve have factories to build, triple-decker houses down in Manchester to build, they need lumber, we got to get it to them, and it was that kind of mentality”
As a result, entire mountains were completely stripped.
Trains from logging railroads threw sparks and massive forest fires erupted year after year.
Stock says landowners began to realize they had a huge problem on their hands.
“If you had a big chunk of land and it caught fire you were out the value of that timber, and you were kind of on your own, and if you wanted to try and do something to control it, you were on the hook personally to do it.”
The state of New Hampshire couldn’t afford to fight the fires on its own.
In 1910, a small group of landowners, lumber and saw mill owners, and other businesses met in Gorham to see what could be done.
Ann Davis is President of the Board of Directors for the New Hampshire Timberland Owners Association.
“The people who gathered in Gorham were involved in the industry, but many of them, including William Robinson Brown, were early leaders in conservation in monitoring and using the resource wisely.
Brown, of the Brown Company, owned the paper mill in Berlin and was concerned about what would happen when all the wood was gone.
The group managed to raise enough money to set up an organization of firefighters.
Jasen Stock says that’s when the New Hampshire Timberland Owners Association was born.
“They set up this network of fire towers, telephone and telegraph lines and patrol routes.”
The newly established Association charged members a penny an acre to fund the fire fighters.
Timber businesses obviously had their own reasons, but were not alone in wanting to protect the forests.
The Appalachian Mountain Club, founded in Boston in 1876, had long been bringing up tourists to the White Mountains to hike and escape city life.
They built the first AMC hiking trail in Tuckerman Ravine in 1879, and the first hut at Madison Spring in 1888.
AMC spokesman Rob Burbank says members began to see that the mountain experience they longed for was disappearing.
“AMC members were on the ground hiking the trails and they could see the devastation first hand, many of the fires and the cutover areas of the period were well documented in our White Mountain Guide first published back in 1907.”
They began to advocate for forest protection as early as 1900.
By 1903 the AMC helped draft a bill for creation of a forest reserve in the White Mountains.
“I think back then the need for the legislation was apparent to many and that need brought together conservationists, manufacturers, policy makers and others who worked toward the common goal of protecting the region’s forests.”
Another organization of concerned citizens also had major influence: the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests.
Formed in 1901, the organization hired forester Philip Ayres.
He accepted the job on one condition: that he be allowed to advocate for a national forest.
Historian Marcia Schmidt Blaine with Plymouth State University says Ayres was extremely influential.
He used powerful photographs of forest devastation.
“Ayres came to work, and what he did for the first year was to go out and listen, what did the timber owners want, what did the logging operators want, what did the mill workers want, what did the mill owners want, what did the tourists want, he listened to anyone who would talk to him.”
Schmidt Blaine says what they all wanted was a working forest.
Ayres assembled a coalition that included the AMC, the American Pulp and Paper Association, the American Forestry Association, and many others to become advocates for protecting the forest.
The best way to do that, they reasoned, was through federal legislation.
The bill creating a national forest was pushed along with the help of John Wingate Weeks, a Massachusetts Congressman born in Lancaster New Hampshire.
He urged Congress to allow the purchase of land not for trees and scenery, but for the improvement of the navigability of a river.
Since rivers are affected by forests in the watershed, improving rivers meant protecting forests.
In 1911, President Taft signed what became known as the Weeks Act.
By 1918, New Hampshire’s White Mountains became a national forest.
100 years later, many of the organizations that helped push for the Weeks Act still work together.
Jane Difley is President Forester for the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests.
“I think that in New Hampshire the fact that the organizations that helped establish the White Mountain National Forest are still here, means that we also still have that same collaborative experience we still have that ideal of bringing people together, solving problems and trying to come to some balance.
Since 1911, the forest society has helped protect more than just the White Mountains.
“We own a little more than 50-thousand acres and 170 reservations in 95 communities and we also have responsibilities for just over 100-thousand acres in conservation easements.”
They also manage some of those lands and protect open space as well as forests.
Jasen Stock with the New Hampshire Timberland Owners Association says on the Centennial of the Weeks Act, it’s important to realize how far the state has come in protecting its forests.
“we have a state that’s 84 percent forested, we have incredibly clean water, and we still have people owning timberland, we still have loggers cutting trees, we still have people making a living working in the woods.”
The New Hampshire Timberland Owners Association is a bit of a misnomer now.
With a membership of about 14-hundred, only half are landowners.
The rest include businesses, loggers, sawmill operators, paper mill owners and foresters.
Stock says forest based manufacturing contributes more than 1.5 billion dollars to the state’s economy.
And the AMC continues to bring tourists and outdoor enthusiasts to the White Mountains.
Rob Burbank says it also continues to advocate for forest protection.
“Through its work on behalf of the Weeks Act, AMC really found its voice in conservation, really found its voice as an advocate for the protection of Eastern forests and the White Mountains”
But passage of the Weeks Act in 1911 was only the beginning.
The lands we now call our eastern national forests took decades longer to create.