Lessons for NH’s energy future from its conservative past

Addressing the impending climate crisis will require a more comprehensive collaborative, bipartisan approach


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A few weeks ago, my family joined hundreds of thousands of others in celebrating New Hampshire’s natural splendor in the White Mountain National Forest. As we took in the fall foliage from the Cog Railway and hiked along the Pemigewasset River, it was impossible to imagine that just a century ago, these same landscapes were anything but natural or splendid.

Extensive documentary evidence from the turn of the 20th century reveals that unregulated clear-cutting by private logging outfits had wiped out most of New Hampshire’s virgin forests and left the iconic mountainsides bare. Rivers and streams were choked with sawdust and silt, robbing downstream factories of vital waterpower. Eroding hillsides were no match for the rains, which produced damaging floods. A series of deadly forest fires claimed some 10 percent of the present-day national forest. The area we so prize today was termed “the lands nobody wanted.” New Hampshire’s economy and way of life were at risk.

In response, a motley coalition of environmentalists, businessmen and elected officials — led by Republicans — set out to achieve a quintessentially conservative end: preserving New Hampshire’s most precious natural resources for future generations. Conservationists at the Appalachian Mountain Club and NH Forest Society were joined by timber associations and magazines seeking government stabilization of a volatile lumber market; hotel owners and their guests dismayed at the sight of bare and blackened slopes; Manchester industrialists in need of a stable source of energy to power their factories and keep their employees at work. Their combined efforts paid off in 1911 with passage of the Weeks Act in Congress, establishing the national forest system and its 20 million acres of protected public lands nationwide.

Republican reformers like John Wingate Weeks of Lancaster recognized that government action was needed to rein in the excesses of a private enterprise system that placed profits before people and the planet. Although I can claim no part in that struggle (save my grateful membership in the Forest Society today), I know it stands as one of the proudest achievements in my great-great-granddad’s storied career as a Naval officer, congressman, senator and secretary of war.

The White Mountain National Forest, a 750,000-acre tract of land with 1,200 miles of hiking trails and countless tourist attractions, contributes nearly $9 billion to our state’s outdoor recreation industry — home to some 80,000 jobs — while also enabling responsible logging and other commercial activities. It is a gift to be treasured.

Nevertheless, the long-term health of our national forests — and the larger ecosystem on which they and we depend — is under increasing threat from a greater environmental challenge than the one my great-great-granddad faced a century ago: rapid climate change.

If current emissions trends continue, scientists warn, New Hampshire, with its 80 percent reliance on imported fossil fuels and other non-renewable energy sources, will see a 10ºF increase in average surface temperatures this century. The results of our 2ºF warming to-date since 1900 are already frightfully evident in northern New Hampshire and across the state.

Studies show that over half of New Hampshire’s moose in the Great North Woods have died due to tick infestations caused by warming winters. Loons are also increasingly at risk as rising temperatures disrupt their natural migration from inland lakes to the sea. Even the sturdy maple tree – part of a billion-dollar tourism and maple sugaring industry – is under threat as winter thaws and summer droughts cause it to “sicken, decline and disappear [or] migrate north,” according to NHDES.

Winter as we know it may well disappear.

Addressing the impending climate crisis will require an even more comprehensive and collaborative approach than that untaken by principled conservatives and their allies a century ago. Republicans and Democrats now have an urgent responsibility to stand up to the fossil fuel industry — the number one contributor to global warming — and begin the wholesale transformation of our energy system to clean renewable sources of power.

The newly-released “100% Renewable Energy Strategy for New Hampshire’s Future” is an important step in that direction. Written by a volunteer group of state legislators,   environmentalists and businesspeople, the plan charts a realistic pathway for New Hampshire to move from near-total reliance on non-renewable energy today to 100 percent homegrown clean energy by 2040.

By harnessing sunlight, wind and water and investing in energy conservation, the strategy would rapidly reduce carbon pollution while curbing electricity costs and adding thousands of clean tech jobs in a state that desperately needs to attract a younger workforce.

The time is now for conservatives and progressives to apply the lessons of the past and build a brighter, cleaner energy future together for the state we love.

Dan Weeks, director at ReVision Energy, contributed to the 100% Renewable Energy Strategy.

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