The Weeks Act and the Next Century of Conservation in New England

A century ago, northern New England was a mess. Its forests were cut over and burned out, and the remaining stands were a mere remnant of the wooded expanse that once sheltered native peoples and later greeted European colonists. These settlers’ demands for food, fuelwood, and building material began a clearing process that peaked in the 19th century, when nearly every acre of usable forest had been converted to hard-scrabble farms and pastures. The rapid consumption of timber with no thought to reforestation produced rampaging spring floods and intense summer fires.

Citizens and business leaders whose mills required stable waterflows began to agitate for federal protection and restoration of New England’s forests, but because New England’s forested headwaters were in private ownership, a legislative solution was needed. In 1911, after a decade-long campaign by national conservation leaders and regional grassroots organizations such as the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests and the Appalachian Mountain Club, Congress passed the Weeks Act. Named for its astute floor manager, New Hampshire-born John W. Weeks (R-MA), it authorized the purchase of private land to augment the national forest system. The act has proved to be one of the most important pieces of environmental legislation in modern U.S. history.

The first eastern national forests it purchased – the Pisgah in North Carolina (1916) and the White Mountains in New Hampshire (1919) – became expressions of a new approach to conservation. Individuals and agencies on the local, state, and national levels began to collaborate in restoring exploited forest land, initially to protect watersheds and wood supplies, and eventually for a broad array of public benefits – from wildlife habitat and biodiversity to outdoor recreation. Today’s visitors marvel at the wild beauty of these forests, largely unaware that a century ago these were among the most degraded and abused lands in the nation.

That we are the lucky beneficiaries of this earlier generation’s principled activism is no excuse for us to rest on their laurels. Indeed, our challenge is as daunting as theirs was, for we must steward this now well-wooded land for current and future generations and do so in an age of economic uncertainty, climate disruption, and an expanding population’s demands for resources and recreation.

A key factor in shaping how northern New England will respond to these challenges is embedded in its complex landownership mosaic, itself a partial consequence of Weeks-Act purchases establishing the White Mountain and Green Mountain national forests. Because public and private woodlands are intertwined, owners have been impelled to adopt a more cooperative approach to landscape conservation. Such conservation partnerships will become increasingly important as climate change shifts habitat ranges for native plant and animal species and as thousands of acres of forest are lost each year to development.

Although it is hard to imagine another Weeks-Act-like federal initiative coming to the rescue, this does not mean that landscape-scale conservation initiatives are a thing of the past. Instead, the mechanisms for achieving conservation goals will change, with more modest government investments leveraging much larger private donations – through easements and other tools – in a landscape that, in general, will remain privately owned. This model will be based on partnerships, shared conservation values, and mutual respect. It will come to define 21st-century conservationism in much the same way that building systems of federal and state public lands, courtesy of the Weeks Act and other measures, characterized its 20th-century predecessor.

To succeed, this new conservation ethic will need an increasing number of private forest owners who understand the economic value and environmental services a working landscape provides. For them, a healthy return will include productive woodlands that, among other things, also sustain biodiversity, sequester carbon, and produce clean water. Others will see a moral or ethical imperative, affirming their responsibility to use the land wisely and to leave it in a condition as good as or better than the way they received it. In so doing, these conservationists make the world a healthier place for themselves, their families, and all of us.

One hundred years ago this year, two of the most powerful proponents of conservation in U.S. history urged passage of the Weeks Act so that it might enhance the public and private interest in conservation. Forest Service Chief Gifford Pinchot argued that the legislation would ensure economic growth and social justice: “A nation deprived of liberty may win it; a nation divided may reunite, but a nation whose natural resources are destroyed must inevitably pay the penalty of poverty, degradation, and decay.” His former boss, President Theodore Roosevelt, spoke forcefully about the rights of future generations: “I ask you to profit from the mistakes made elsewhere,” he pleaded with southern conservationists, “and so handle [natural resources] that you leave your land as a heritage to your children, increased and not impaired in permanent value.”

Their charge then is our charge now.

Char Miller is W. M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College and author of Gifford Pinchot and the Making of Modern Environmentalism. V. Alaric Sample is President of the Pinchot Institute for Conservation in Washington, D. C. and author of Land Stewardship in the Next Era of Conservation.


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