Friday, April 1, 2011

Celebrating the Woods -- The Weeks Act of 1911

New Hampshire's National Forest featuring the White Mountains.
Pictured here: Mt. Washington, 6,288 feet tall.
Known as AGIOCOCHOOK or "Home of the Great Spirit"
before Europeans (and the General) arrived.

The Weeks Act, named for Rep. John Weeks (R-MA), was signed into law by  President William Howard Taft on March 1, 1911, and gave the federal government the authority to create national forests across the east, changing the face of New England through the establishment of the White and Green Mountains national forests. It is thus one of the nation’s most important pieces of environmental legislation.

John Wingate Weeks, 1860-1926 born in Lancaster, New Hampshire
has a footbridge over the Charles River on Harvard's campus named after him, too!

I live on the edge of the National Forest and, as you might have gathered from following my blog, I love the woods.  The White Mountains are my backyard!

I'm in Thornton (lower left hand side of map) and just a 10 minute
drive from the Kancamangus Highway with breath-taking views...

So the day before yesterday, when I heard a colleague and friend of mine, historian Dr. Marcia Schmidt Blaine, give a wonderful talk on the history of the Weeks Act and logging in New Hampshire on the NHPR (New Hampshire Public Radio), I was thrilled.  It reminded me how fortunate I am to live in this part of the world -- this part of the world where we celebrate WILDERNESS, where we love our woods!  

Folks come for all over the country (and especially from beloved Massachusetts) to visit our mountain tops, forests and pristine lakes.  How lucky can a person be -- to be at the center of all this!  What an honor to live here.  And what a responsibility to keep it safe for generations.

As the spring thaw sneaks up on us, slowly, like a lethargic, stealthy lamb (still being chased by that LION), I look at the water richness all around me.  As the ice burgs in the Pemi river shrink and as the snow melt rushes down from the mountains nearby, I'm reminded of how essential our rushing, bubbling rivers are.  One part of the Weeks Act focuses on water -- kind of important to the growing of tress and the biodiversity of our forests!  The legislation provides  "...for the protection of the watersheds of navigable streams, and to appoint a commission for the acquisition of lands for the purpose of conserving the navigability of navigable rivers."

We sometimes forget how important the health of streams and rivers are to us -- and how vital to our own sustenance these waterways remain still, though we often don't think of them beyond the aesthetic pleasure they provide to us on hikes into the woods.  Spending three weeks in India carrying buckets of well pumped water out into dry forests to quench saplings in the hot sun this past January surely helped me appreciate water in a new way.** 

More than just being pretty, I experienced first hand how water is life.  Maintaining strong clean networks of water flow is essential to keeping our aquifers healthy.  As ecology and Buddhism keep reminding us: it is all connected.

"The [Weeks] Act further allowed for lands so acquired to be preserved and maintained as national forests. Prior to this time, on 1 February 1905, control over the forest reserves had been transferred from the General Land Office of the Department of the Interior to the Department of Agriculture. Responsibility for these lands was given to Chief Forester Gifford Pinchot. With these lands he gained the power to issue permits for water power development on National Forests. The Weeks Act appropriated $9 million to purchase 6 million acres of land in the eastern United States!!" (wikipedia).

**Footnote: It may be interesting to note that India actually had one of the first scientific forest management systems in the world, introduced during British rule in 1864.  The British Raj created the Imperial Forest Department that year and appointed officers were sent to Germany and France to learn the most modern forestry techniques.

"In the north the two key northern proponents were the Appalachian Mountain Club (1876) and the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests (1901). Without their indefatigable coalition building, and persistent lobbying in public meetings, congressional hearings, and through the media, we would not have 52 eastern national forests.

Without these lands, our watersheds would be less green, potable water less pure, scenic vistas less stunning, and economic life less vibrant." -- Char Miller, Director and W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College

In addition to water, the Weeks Act focuses on fire.  Fire control, to be exact.  It was a HOT topic in the early 20th century.  Marcia Schmidt-Blaine discusses how, before the Weeks Act, timber companies clear cut whole swathes of forest and left nothing it is place but kindling.  Without trees and roots to hold snow and water, severe floods were common place in the springs.  Forest fires in New Hampshire in 1903 after a severe drought devastated parts of the forest.  Some towns were completely surrounded by forest fires and mills had to be closed down so all the men in the town could go fight the fires.  Ashes from this 1903 fire fell from the sky for days, like snow, in the middle of summer.

For photos and more on this story:

Stopping the wholesale destruction of the woods looked nearly impossible at the turn of the century.  There was a lot of money to be made chopping down trees.  Powerful timber companies had a lot of clout in the State and Federal Legislatures.  Big business and big bucks outweighed local concerns about conservation.  Legislative bills introduced to save the forests in the late 1800's and the first decade of the 1900's were largely ignored.  Logging tycoons bought up tens of thousands of acres of forest in New Hampshire, alone.  Another friend and local historian, Dr. Linda Upham-Bornstein, talked about the impact this had on the local economy.  Unscrupulous sawmill operators set up shop in remote regions, bringing jobs and opportunities for rural people for a few months at a time, before clear cutting the forests and clearing out of town with full pockets.  Rural economies boomed and then went bust.  Portsmouth and Boston were 'benefiting' from logging, N.H. was not.

The 'fire season' of 1910 greatly influenced this legislation because it raised havoc across the western United States, especially in the state of Idaho where fires killed 85 people (72 of them firefighters), burned more than 3 million acres and destroyed an estimated 8,000,000,000 board feet of timber and put the US Forest Service 1.1 million dollars in debt.
(wikipedia- "Weeks Act")  

Having seen the devastation of forest fires in the White Mountains myself, I appreciate this.  A constant reminder of the Weeks Act, and the good work that private-public partnerships have done to reduce fire risks, is the series of fire towers which dot the mountain ridges throughout the National Forest.  The Presidential Range is home to several fire towers, which remind us constantly (as oft we need reminding) that we are quite small when it comes to the ravages of natural (and man-made) disaster... but with diligence and care we can preserve our heritage.   To me, this preservation isn't just for tree huggers, it's for us all.

Carter Dome Fire Tower, 1938.

The Weeks Act saved the forests from bad business and the resultant fire threats clear cutting caused.  Legislation provided means for cooperation between the state and federal authorities when it came to fire control.  Wilderness conservation won out over big biz.  

Today, trained environmental scientists and forest management service teams regulate timber cutting in the National Forest.  The focus is on limiting development in the forest area and maintaining sustainable logging practices.  Since 1911, other protective legislation (the Wilderness Preservation Act, 1964 & the Endangered Species Act, 1973, etc.) helps maintain the multiple uses of the forest -- which include recreation and research, in addition to watershed conservation and lumber.  

Unlike a National Park, which emphasizes preservation, the National Forests focus on conservation and the careful attention to the 'multiple uses' that the forest has for the greatest number of people.  Logging continues to be a part of that conservation but it is directed by thoughtful and scientific forestry -- siviculture -- which promotes reforestation and re-growth, as well as responsible logging.  Today, we call the White Mountain National Forest in New Hampshire "The Land of Many Uses," in fact!  

This is a far more sacred and holistic way of living with the forests, in my opinion, than to just rope them off and restrict access to them, as some extreme preservationists promote.  The woods are living spaces, and as such, deserve to be seen as a dynamic and evolving place in which we, as part of an eco-system, can live out our social, spiritual, cultural, commercial life, in a balanced way.  Harmony of interests and identities isn't such a bad goal, in my view.

For more on "The Land of Many Uses" and my friends' amazing interview, see:

Providing habitat for wildlife and bio-diversity is also central to the good work of the National Forest.  As you may recall from my first blog post (December 26, 2011) my dog Rimbaud is especially grateful for the critters and the delicious smells they leave throughout the forests when we go hiking.  (For instance, he loves rolling in dead moose carcass).  Having not been out for a trek now for close to 4 months, I miss the thrill of discovery and the adventure of the mountain trails.  I miss the smell of trees and grass.

Now, as I sit outside glancing at the whiteness that blankets those critters and their tracks, 
I wonder how the moose are doing.  We're entering our 5th month of snowfall and I can't but help thinking they've gotta be almost fed up with the frosty flakes, too.

Snow falls in large wet lumps outside my window on this April morning, as I gaze out into the forest and I long for those days of dry, green, wilderness exploration...

My hard core, outdoorsy friends would tell me to shush up and strap on some snow shoes but I'm not that much of a winter wilderness girl (I confess) and on cold days like this I prefer to watch the woods from inside, at my warm fire, curled up with a history book (or web page).  It makes me a wilderness wimp in some folks eyes.  But it doesn't make me love the woods any less!  Even armchair ecologists can love the woods in the winter.

The Weeks Act reminds me of those forestry professionals out there maintaining the ecology and managing the forests (even as we speak) so that folks like you and me can be out and about, romping, appreciating, loving and learning in the woods.  They are a dedicated and spirited group of workers.  They love the woods in a way I can't even fathom.  And my heart goes out to them, especially during our long, frigid New Hampshire winters.


Happy April Fool's Day (no joking) to the good people of the forest: the down hill skiers, the snow shoers, the ice fishers, the snow hikers and campers, the timber management teams, the rangers and forestry professionals.  To all of you who love the wild woods, even when it sits buried beneath feet of April snow... I tip my toque.  You are wilderness heroes!

Hang in there, folks.  In a few months, it will look like this...


  1. What a great mixture of history, commentary, and joy your blog is! Wish I was there with you to go for a walk.

  2. Thanks Betsy! I wish we could walk too... this summer maybe?