NHPR is taking an in-depth look at the Weeks Act, the historic legislation that led to the creation of our eastern national forests.
The White Mountain National Forest, created in 1918, has been used for many different purposes including recreation, wildlife protection, and timber harvesting.
Managing all those different uses doesn’t come without controversy.
NHPR’s Amy Quinton looks at the role our forests play and what threats they may face in the future.
More than 26 million acres of eastern national forests owe their existence to the Weeks Act.
The original intent of the federal government purchasing these cut over and scarred landscapes was to re-grow the forests.
Char Miller, Director of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College in California, says several decades later the question became now what?
What is the role of these public lands?
“Part of what we’re looking at now, I think in NH and elsewhere is how to create a mechanism whereby we can justify some economic harvesting, without damaging either the wildness values that those places have, or in fact the recreational possibilities that we want to appreciate with them.”
The debate over timber harvesting in the east reached its height in 1964 in what became known as the Monongahela Controversy.
The U-S Forest Service changed its method of timber harvesting from partial cuts to clear cuts in the Monongahela National Forest in West Virginia.
Unlike the West where clear cuts were common and largely out of sight, the U-S Forest Service clearcut the Monongahela in highly visible areas.
And it raised fears of a return to the devastation caused in the late 19thcentury.
Charlie Niebling is General Manager for New England Wood Pellet.
He’s former Vice President of Land Management with the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests.
“A fresh clear cut looks like environmental destruction and devastation, people often react very viscerally and emotionally to change in the landscape and there is nothing more abrupt than a clear cut.”
The Monongahela controversy resulted in the National Forest Management Act.
It mandates forest management plans for all National Forests.
It permits clear-cutting, but only where it can be shown to be the best forestry practice, and only after the public has had the opportunity for input.
Foresters say clear-cutting done properly is an important scientific tool and one of the reasons the Forest Service uses it today.
They say opening up land provides sunlight for different types of trees and plants that can be important habitat for wildlife.
Jasen Stock is with the New Hampshire Timberland Owners Association.
“If you talk to anyone that understands northern hardwood management, clearcuts are a fantastic tool for regenerating a lot of species we like to see, sugar maple, birches, it’s becoming known that clearcuts are the preferred method of regenerating those.”
Foresters also say it’s important to have a bio-diverse forest with trees of varying ages.
Tom Wagner is Forester Supervisor for the White Mountain National Forest.
“We’re trying to accomplishes differences in wildlife habitat we think it’s important to have multi-age classes on the forest, and not have it be all one age class so that we’re susceptible to things like insects and disease and the next hurricane that will come.”
The last forest management plan for the White Mountains came in 2005.
And it didn’t come easily or without debate.
With that plan, the Forest Service has to balance the needs of timber harvesting, recreation, wildlife management and determine what parts of the White Mountains should remain wilderness.
Of the 800-thousand acres, 403-thousand are what the Forest Service calls roadless, which are lands that are for the most part not fragmented by roads.
Leanne Klyza Linck, with the Wilderness Society, says this isn’t pristine untouched land, but areas that are recovering from logging of the past.
She believes the Forest Service is leaving too much land open for timber harvesting.
“The concern we had of the 403 thousand roadless acres, 142-thousand were actually identified as being suitable for logging and that’s a big concern when you look at the National Forest System across the country. There is a very small percentage of lands that indeed are roadless.”
Tom Van Vechton with the Sierra Club takes it one step further.
He says because so much of the forest was cut in the late 1800’s before the Weeks Act, the forest lacks the old growth trees that were once part of the landscape.
“We are overwhelmingly lacking stands over 150 years old or so, and clearly the way to restore those is just to wait, there’s no way to get a 700 year old stand quickly”
And Van Vechton says Wilderness areas aren’t what they could be.
“Areas that have been made into wilderness tend to be areas that are at higher elevation, and that are farther away from the large rivers, and where access is harder to get and growing conditions are worse.”
The Sierra Club and other environmental groups took the US Forest Service to court over some areas they say should never be logged.
Van Vechton says there were stands of trees 150 years old in one area.
The groups lost their court case, and the area is open for timber harvesting.
While some believe clear-cutting done properly in the White Mountains is important, there will always be others who say the forests should be left alone or turned into a National Park.
But shortly after the 2005 planning process, more than 30-thousand acres of wilderness was added to the White Mountains.
Charlie Neibling, former Land Management Vice President with the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, says most parties agree that the Forest Management Planning process works well.
“There’s probably as close to a comfortable co-existence between wilderness, strict preservation, and responsible use and management as exists on any national forests in the country.”
Neibling says a lot of that has to do with the history of the forest, as far back as when the Weeks Act was signed.
“There’s tremendous investment among interest groups in NH and they’ve got a long history of working together to find common interests and work out their differences.”
The 2005 forest management plan will guide the managing of the forest for 15 years, but the big question is what the future holds.
“I think one of the threats to our forest is climate change”
That’s Jane Difley President Forester with the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests.
“There is so many things we don’t know about how climate as it changes will affect our forests, how it will affect the insects, and diseases that are in our forests, how it will affect rainfall, temperatures, snow.”
Leanne Klyza Linck with the Wilderness Society agrees climate change is the biggest unknown.
Leanne” With climate we’re seeing changes and the potential for shifts in ranges of both wildlife and plant species, we don’t really know what all that means, but it’s clearly a huge huge threat.”
The U-S Forest Service recently unveiled a new forest management rule that they say will give them more flexibility to respond to modern stresses like climate change.
It also requires more public involvement.
Tom Wagner, Forest Supervisor for the White Mountain National Forest, says it’s important that citizens help manage the public lands.
“What would this landscape look like if it wasn’t public land, and I don’t know what the answer to that is, but I think it would look differently than it looks today.”
After all, it was the public’s involvement in 1911 that created the national forests, through passage of the Weeks Act.
For NHPR news, I’m Amy Quinton.