A Northern Forest Mosaic: Community-based conservation after the Weeks Act

January 1, 2011

Appalachia, Winter/Spring 2011

Craig Lombard owns 1,000 acres of land in Berlin, New Hampshire. The parcel is relatively unremarkable: slopes of woodlot crisscrossed by logging roads and wildlife paths, abutting the summit of Mount Forist on one end and Jericho Mountain State Park on the other. For years, the parcel remained woodlot, accessed for timber and local recreational use. It is undeveloped but highly developable.
And Lombard wants development. He is a businessman motivated by the logic of marketing and tourism. Seeking to preserve public access and recreation, he set up an organization called Wilderness New England to promote dogsledding, primitive camping, snowmobiling, hiking, and, as advertised on his website, even Frisbee golf. Wilderness New England is his member-based organization. Dues go toward the recreational development of the property. Lombard works full time selling prosthetics and managing property in Conway, so he hopes that Wilderness New England will organize itself and that the 1,000 acres he bought and conserved will become a community asset and economic driver in a city under hard times.

As a businessman, and landowner, he is also out to market and promote a certain type of experience. His interest in wilderness comes from his motivation to provide a stunning backdrop to the yurts and tent platforms WNE offers to its members. Lombard’s business depends on a landscape of rugged mountains. He works to keep the dense thickets of forest—its views and its resources—intact.

The landscape in the northern forest is changing: houses spread along ridgelines where the struggling timber industry must quickly “liquidate” timber and sell the land to make money. Land once owned by a single entity, such as the Brown Company in Berlin, is splintering into many parcels owned by investment groups with few community ties beyond the contractors hired to cut. Although timber practices have always been dictated by economics and profit, land fragmentation and an uncertain timber market indicates a new kind of challenge for those who want to protect a way of life and a stretch of forest.

Where residents once knew all of the landowners, today’s owners seem mysterious and distant. As a pure investment asset, the land becomes subject to the rapid decisions of stock and trade economics: clear-cutting the land when the timber sales boom, blocking off or limiting access in order to increase resale value, without accountability for local needs.

Locals who have ranged freely through these forests find no guarantee of continued access. They now ask, Will I still be able to access the land for recreation? Will the mountain slopes remain wild? Who is responsible when something goes wrong? A hundred years from now, will there still be jobs in the forest? What will the land look like to my children? What can I do to preserve these resources?

A hundred years ago, no one could answer these questions, until the Weeks Act, passed in 1911, came along as an attempt to answer them by having the federal government step in. History did not stop with the Weeks Act, though, and in the time since it was instituted, people trying to conserve large northeastern tracts have fine-tuned their approaches, taking cues from the needs of local community members who value both the forest industry and public access. As a result, northern New Hampshire, one of the birthplaces of the Weeks Act, now composes a mosaic of land types: private, private under public easement, federal wildlife refuge, national scenic trail, state park, community forest, and federal forest. Now, when a community seeks to protect the forest that it values, ways to do so are many—unless it is within the proclamation boundary2 of the White Mountain National Forest.

Since the Weeks Act and the advent of forest technology, managers of industrial timberland cut with an eye to the 30-year regeneration cycle of the forest, skimming selectively and cutting parcels to ensure the growth of a mix of pulp and straight saw logs. It was expected that a single owner, families, or industrial mills, would be the same owner 30 years later. Somewhere around the 1980s, a new form of timber owner emerged: the timber investment management organization, a management group set up with a life of 10 years. This is the more subtle challenge: In contrast to the Weeks Act, which was a reaction to a strong physical threat, expressed in raw overharvesting…

SALLY MANIKIAN, who has written for Appalachia twice before, believes in forests as a social and economic force. She has worked in the backcountry of New Hampshire for several years and currently is the backcountry resource conservation manager for the Appalachian Mountain Club. She serves on the boards of directors of the Randolph Mountain Club and the Berlin (New Hampshire) Industrial Development and Park Authority. She lives in Berlin.

The full text of this story may be found in the Winter/Spring 2011 issue of Appalachia.

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Sally Manikian

Sally Manikian of Shelburne, New Hampshire, has published many essays about standing with one foot in the wilds and one foot in civilization. She is the Vermont and New Hampshire representative for The Conservation Fund and the News and Notes editor of this journal.