National Forest Foundation

Grassroots Movement Grows a Forest

The National Forest System

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In March, NFF friend and author, Char Miller, released a beautiful coffee table book called America’s Great National Forests, Wildernesses and Grasslands. We are pleased to be able to excerpt several of Miller’s thoughtful essays in a new blog series we’re calling: “In-Depth: America’s Forests from Past to Present.” The series focuses on National Forests that are part of our Treasured Landscapes, Unforgettable Experiences conservation effort. If you’re interested in learning more about the NFF’s work on these amazing landscapes, please visit nationalforests.org/treasured.

We hope you enjoy the blog series and Tim Palmer’s gorgeous photos that accompany the book and the posts. You can purchase America’s National Forests, Wildernesses and Grasslands at fine book retailers and online outlets throughout the country.

Wilderness can be regenerated. For evidence, just put boot to ground along the Appalachian Trail as it threads up and over the Presidential Range in New Hampshire, weaving through the heart of the White Mountain National Forest. A summer’s day hike, running north from Mounts Eisenhower and Monroe to Jefferson and Adams, offers a delightful mix of cool shade and dappled light beneath an enveloping green canopy that allows but occasional glimpses of the rolling vistas stretching out east and west. Only when you crest Mount Washington, the tallest peak at 6,288 feet, will you gain an unobstructed perspective on the sweep of forest that extends to the horizon. No wonder more than six million tourists a year visit the White Mountain National Forest to ski, hike, fish, boat, and hunt, or to revel in the varied forms of solitude its five federally designated wildernesses offer each season.

A century ago, no one would have called the White Mountains “unspoiled,” unless they had a penchant for the cut over, farmed out, and burned up. These mountains’ devastation and the public outcry it sparked was one of the main reasons why in 1911 Congress enacted the Weeks Act. It gave the federal government permission to purchase eastern forested watersheds for conservation purposes, including what would become the White Mountain National Forest

Photo by Tim Palmer

Congress protected these bruised environments only after sustained grassroots pressure. A key figure in this fight in New Hampshire was the Reverend John E. Johnson. For years, Johnson had ministered to hardscrabble families throughout the rugged White Mountains region and had come to know their struggles intimately. A definitive factor in their poverty and despair, he believed, was the New Hampshire Land Company, “a corporation chartered to depopulate and deforest” a wide swath of mountainous country. It was, Johnson wrote in a 1900 pamphlet, the “Worst ‘Trust’ in the World.” What made it so egregious was the sweetheart deal with the state legislature that had allowed its investors “to acquire for a song all the public lands thereabouts, and later ‘take over’ all tax titles, until finally there [were] no considerable tracts in the vicinity which it did not own.” Once it became the region’s dominant landowner, the company began a process Johnson dubbed “refrigeration.” It froze out local loggers by refusing to sell them the timber they needed to run their mills. This had troubling implications for the rising generation. Because they were “robbed of their winter employment, [they] took no longer to the woods but to the cities, leaving the old folks to fall slowly but surely into the clutches of the company which took their farms from them or their heirs, in most cases for a dollar or two an acre.”

Johnson recognized that zealous rhetoric alone would not stop the land company’s depredations. Local organizing, statewide activism, regional support, and federal engagement were essential to the successful launch of a reform crusade that would ensure social justice in and environmental protection for the White Mountains. “In the evolution of righteousness,” the minister asserted, “political economy precedes piety. The Law goes before the Gospel.”

Johnson and his supporters orchestrated a massive public uproar to force the state legislature to pay attention to the ineluctable connection between the people’s plight and the despoiled environment. The movement’s next step was to establish an organization devoted to the regeneration of the local economy and the restoration of the denuded White Mountains. Johnson was among those who organized the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests (1901). Its first president was the state’s outgoing governor, Frank Rollins.

Photo by Tim Palmer

The final stage of the battle, a skeptical Johnson predicted, would involve a trade-off. “To get a bill through the state legislature to purchase these deforested areas for a public reservation” would only occur “at a price ten times as great as that originally paid for the lumber lots.” But he and other conservationists believed that repairing the land, and the communities it once supported, was worth the inflated costs.

Ultimately, the federal government would pick up the tab via the Weeks Act, which enabled “any state to cooperate with any other state or states, or with the United States for the protection of the watersheds of navigable streams.” It remains one of the most significant pieces of environmental legislation in US political history.

The act, named for Representative John W. Weeks, who was born in New Hampshire but shepherded the legislation through Congress as a Massachusetts-based member of the United States House of Representatives, owed much of its popular support to another local boy made good, Philip W. Ayres. A Harvard-trained forester of the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, the indefatigable Ayres spoke throughout New England in support of the bill. He also forged links with southern and midwestern conservationists to advance the larger cause. After a 10-year campaign, the Weeks Act became law.

Fittingly, some of the earliest Weeks Act purchases occurred in the White Mountains. The resulting White Mountain National Forest (established May 1918) was not the first eastern national forest—that honor goes to North Carolina’s Pisgah National Forest (1916). Together, these forests laid the foundation for subsequent purchases throughout the Appalachians. In the next decade, the federal government was able to buy lands forming the Nantahala, Cherokee, George Washington, and Monongahela National Forests. In the mid-1930s, following a massive infusion of New Deal funding, additional sites came on line, including Vermont’s Green Mountain National Forest. To date, the Weeks Act has added more than 22 million acres to the national forest system.

Photo by Tim Palmer

The act, by expanding the U.S. Forest Service’s ability to protect watersheds, regenerate heavily logged forests, replant overgrazed prairie, and develop innumerable recreational opportunities, enabled the agency to operate in the east much as it had done in the west. Put another way, the Weeks Act made the national forests national; through it, conservation went continental.

This seminal piece of legislation also sanctioned cooperation between Washington and the states in the shared pursuit of environmental regulation. As a bonus, it helped rearrange political relationships within the union, strengthened intergovernmental relations, and engendered more uniform land-management regulation. Sherman Adams, a former governor of New Hampshire, said the Weeks Act succeeded because it “was a coalescence of the public interest in natural resource protection and management, the public concern over forest depletion, and the public appreciation for the unique array of goods and services which emanate from the forest.”

The Weeks Act also initiated the creation of a robust firefighting regime that began the process whereby state interests were integrated with the Forest Service’s fire-management strategies. The Clarke-McNary Act of 1924 intensified this process, making “possible the extension of national standards of fire protection,” historian Stephen Pyne has argued. With that, the Forest Service was “well on its way to dominating every aspect of wildland fire management.” This dominance in time would lead to arguments over the value of excluding fire from diverse forested ecosystems.

Linked to these developments was the postwar campaign to “Get Out the Cut” that accelerated timber harvests in the White Mountain and other national forests. Sherman Adams was among those taking the federal agency to task. In 1986, during the 75th anniversary celebrations of the Weeks Act, he questioned the agency’s embrace of clearcutting: “After decades of using locally-modified selective and selection cutting programs, the Forest Service had by 1962 incorporated in a wholesale, indiscriminate manner this aesthetically disruptive and, in forest conditions such as those prevalent in the White Mountains, scientifically questionable system.” This “ill-advised national edict” was, Adams averred, a “disturbing threat to our New England tradition of consensus building.” For a time, “public confidence in the Forest Service was seriously shaken.”

Yet the land’s natural and human-aided regeneration continued despite the tense debates over its condition and management. Surely one mark of its successful revival is the tourists and hikers who each fall descend on the White Mountain National Forest and its environs to revel in New Hampshire’s glorious fall foliage. Their oohs and aahs would not have been possible without the Weeks Act, for it made the forest wild by law.

About the Author

Char Miller is the W. M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College. Author of the Gifford Pinchot and the Making of Modern Environmentalism (2004) and Public Lands, Public Debates: A Century of Controversy (2012), his latest books include America’s Great National Forests, Wilderness, and Grasslands (2016), Not So Golden State: Sustainability vs. the California Dream (2016), On the Edge: Water, Immigration, and Politics in the Southwest (2013) and Seeking the Greatest Good: The Conservation Legacy of Gifford Pinchot (2013); he co-authored Death Valley National Park: A History (2013) and is co-editor of Forest Conservation in the Anthropocene: Science, Policy, and Practice (2016).

About the Photographer

Tim Palmer is the photographer and author of 24 books featuring the American landscape, including the classic photographic works Rivers of America and Trees and Forests of America. His honors include the National Outdoor Book Award, Independent Publishers Award, and Conservation Achievement Award from the National Wildlife Federation.


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