Public Land Conservation in the East: The Weeks Act Story

January 1, 2011

Appalachia, Winter/Spring 2011

Long ago and not far away, men and women from all walks of life, trying to solve a problem in the forests, came up with an idea. They couldn’t have known in the late 1800s that this idea would become a key part of the conservation legacy of the United States. If they were with us now, they would be extremely proud of the results of their work.

The rapidly growing United States was using its natural resources to meet its needs. Much of the eastern half of the country had been converted from forest to farms and grazing lands. As the timber supply in the east dwindled, the relatively new railroad provided access to the last tracts of standing timber, such as the spruce-fir forests of the White Mountain region. The rapid clearing of this mountainous landscape and the subsequent fires that were kindled in the remaining logging slash disrupted ecosystems, causing significant erosion and downstream flooding. Although forests had been cleared in many other places in the east and the south, here in New England the nexus of many concerns resulted in a call for action. This place, the White Mountains, was valued for its scenic beauty, recreational amenities, clean air and water, and long-term wood supply.

People in the White Mountains believed it was special. An interesting coalition of people and values joined to develop a new approach to conservation, one that eventually spread west to the Mississippi River and south to the Gulf of Mexico. Those who worked on the Weeks Act came from young conservation organizations such as the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests and the Appalachian Mountain Club, civic organizations including garden and women’s clubs, hotels and tourism industries, business interests such as the textile mills that relied on reliable and clean water flows, and timber mills and private landowners who were represented by the newly organized New Hampshire Timberland Owner Association. Philip Ayres from the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests and others worked to spread a public message that captured the attention of many New England residents and people throughout the country.This loosely organized collection of interests and values worked with state and federal legislators, including Joseph Walker and John Weeks, during a progressive era in our young democracy to fashion a legislative solution. The Weeks Act allowed for the first time the purchase of lands by the federal…

TOM WAGNER is the forest supervisor of the White Mountain National Forest.

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

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Tom Wagner

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