Centennial of Weeks Act shines light on economic vitality of White Mt. National Forest

It’s not easy to draw a straight line from a law passed more than a century ago to economic vitality today. But there are few critics, if any, who have found much fault with the intent and outcome of the Weeks Act, which changed the destiny of forests in New Hampshire and the entire country.According to a 2011 report by the state Division of Forests and Lands, the economic impact of harvesting and maintaining forests in New Hampshire is estimated at $2.26 billion, or about 4 percent of the state’s gross economic output. The forest-related products industry brings in an estimated $1.15 billion and generates more than 8,100 jobs while the tourism and recreation component is $1.12 billion with more than 11,400 jobs.Overall, 84 percent of the state is covered by forests, which seems obvious today. But a century ago, it was anything but obvious, not only in the White Mountains but throughout the state and in the large sections of the eastern United States. Trees that make up what became known as the White Mountain National Forest had become a rare commodity. After decades of intense and excessive timber-cutting activity, pictures from the time show mountains and hills shorn of trees.The environmental and economic consequences of forestry mismanagement had become apparent – fire burned tens of thousands of acres, water quality as far south as Lowell, Mass., was degraded, and commerce in several industries was being threatened. Organizations such as the Appalachian Mountain club and the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests lobbied hard for something to be done.”The land was cut and burned over, and to a large extent,” said David Govatski of Jefferson, a retired U.S. Forest Service manager. In an historical irony, given the current drive to find revenues from every source, Govatski recounted that in 1867 New Hampshire Gov. Walter Harriman sold 172,000 acres of state land in the White Mountains for $26,000 “to get education revenue for schools.”Constitutional echoEven the powerful T. Coolidge Jefferson, owner of the Amoskeag Mills in Manchester, supported government oversight to in effect save the state’s northern forests.Govatski said that the grand hotels in the White Mountains, which catered to the wealthy who often stayed through the summer season, also called for action.”Protecting watersheds and stream flow were big issues,” said Govatski, secretary of the Weeks Act Centennial Committee and an unofficial historian of the White Mountain National Forest. “Sustainable forestry was another.”He said the “very strong economic interests” calling for action could also see how the federal government was buying and managing lands and providing water supplies in the western part of the country. Eventually, the public and private clamor for action led to the passage in 1911 of the Weeks Act, which Govatski says has been one of the most effective and remarkable pieces of land legislation in modern American history.Sponsored by New Hampshire native and Massachusetts Republican Congressman John Wingate Weeks, the bill allowed the federal government to purchase and maintain private lands that would be permanently maintained as federal forest reserves as a way to protect the headwaters of navigable waterways.The debate over the legislation, which was co-sponsored by Republican New Hampshire Sen. Jacob Gallinger, had the same constitutional echo of today regarding federal intervention into the economy. But Weeks, who grew up in Lancaster, garnered the supported of conservative House Speaker Joseph Cannon of Massachusetts, who had once vowed that “not one cent for scenery” would be spent by federal tax dollars.Weeks crafted a bill that balanced private and public needs, passed the threshold of constitutional review under the commerce clause and got the support of southern lawmakers who were grappling with forest management issues of their own.Higher-quality timberSigned into law by President William Howard Taft in March 1911, the Weeks Act appropriated $9 million to purchase six million acres of eastern forestlands. The bill set in motion a process that resulted in the preservation and management of more than 20 million acres and the establishment of more than 50 national forests in 23 states, including the White Mountain National Forest in 1918, Vermont’s Green Mountain National Forest, Pisgah National Forest in North Carolina and the Ocala National Forest in Florida.What this has meant for New Hampshire, said Wayne Millen, forestry program leader for the White Mountain National Forest, is a textbook combination of conservation and sustainable economic development. Dozens of New Hampshire communities benefit directly from the fee receipts of timber cutting and the multiplier effects of timber-related jobs, he said.The forest management part of the economic equation has led to a higher quality of timber in the 35 percent of the 800,000 acres that are open for logging in the White Mountain National Forest. Since the Weeks Act become law, and especially since the end of World War II, Millen explained, the “forest essentially started from scratch. Unlike private land, national forest landownership doesn’t change and our trees have gotten larger compared (to private lands). The northern hardwoods like yellow birch, oak and maple have all become larger and in high demand.”Over the past century, the region has undergone a slow but dramatic transformation, Govatski said, to provide clean water, wildlife habitat, recreation opportunities, forest products, and intangible qualities that lie beyond an accounting sheet.”A hundred years ago these were lands nobody wanted,” he said.Today, an estimated 6 million visitors come to the White Mountain National Forest every year.There will be a Weeks Act Centennial Festival on July 29 at the base of Mount Washington Auto Road. To find out more about the free public event and the history of the Weeks Act, visit weekslegacy.org.Read the 2011 report on “The Economic Importance of the New Hampshire Forest-Based Economy” at nhdfl.org.