Discovering the Story of the White Mountain National Forest

A Trip on the Weeks Act Legacy Trail

by Chris Proulx

Exploring the White Mountain National Forest along the Kancamagus Highway

Exploring the White Mountain National Forest along the Kancamagus Highway

Treetops undulate over the land like an ocean.  Footpaths outnumber paved roads.  And on a calm day, away from the rivers, you hear… absolutely nothing.  Here, in the White Mountain National Forest, it’s easy think you’ve found a place that time has not changed.

But you haven’t.  This forest has been much different than you see it today. Behind the crystal rivers, bright green or autumn-hued valleys and bristling spruce ridges of today’s healthy forest is a history filled with conflict.  It’s a setting that has changed dynamically over centuries as passionate characters with opposing ideals contested the land and each other over its fate.  This is a forest with a story.

To find the story, you need to know where to look.  A new multimedia driving tour called The Weeks Act Legacy Trail is making that part easy.  It’s a guide that informs by posing questions, ones many of us have never even thought to ask.

“Approximately 5 million visitors come through the White Mountain National Forest annually,” explains Colleen Mainville of the USDA Forest Service.  “But how many really know what it is?  Why it’s here?”

The answers are probably not what you think.

In 2011, a diverse partnership of modern day forest stewards formed to commemorate the centennial anniversary of the signing of the The Weeks Act, commonly credited as the most significant conservation legislation in US history.  The act granted the federal government power to buy private lands for the purpose of creating a forest reserve.  It was the beginning of eastern National Forests.  The goal of the Centennial Committee, made up of representatives from The US Forest Service, Appalachian Mountain Club, Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, Arts Alliance of Northern NH, Plymouth State University, New Hampshire Division of Parks and Recreation and others, was to perpetuate the story of how the White Mountain National Forest came to be.  Why did the government buy these lands?

Was it the views, the recreational opportunities, the wildlife?

“It was the water,” says David Govatski, a White Mountain historian and retired forester with the US Forest Service. “The Weeks Act was created to protect the headwater forests of navigable rivers.”

Contrary to popular belief, majestic vistas are a by-product of federal management, not the motivation behind it. Conservation advocates had lobbied Congress for years on the need to regulate forests on their own merit, but it wasn’t until The Weeks Act linked deforestation to river flow that the federal government actually stepped in.

 “The land back then was owned mostly by lumber companies,” explains Govatski.  ”When the railroads arrived in the late-1800s, harvesting trees became easy and profitable.”

Enraptured by this efficiency, lumber companies quickly clear-cut whole regions, leaving behind pollution, erosion and dry kindling.  It was a recipe for environmental disaster.   In 1910, ten percent of the White Mountain region burned.

At the same time that the railroad was enabling the forest’s mass destruction, it was also ushering in a new age of White Mountain tourism and art.  Opposing industries and ideologies clashed, a cry for conservation rang out and the White Mountains became a symbolic battleground in the national debate over the role of government in the affairs of private industry.

Major characters in the story included the likes of James E. Henry, owner of the most prolific and devastating lumber companies in the White Mountains, Philip Wheelock Ayres, forester for The Society for the Protection of NH Forests who lobbied Congress for protection of the forest as a resource, Joseph Cannon, US Speaker of the House who famously rebutted  “Not one cent for scenery,”  and ultimately John W Weeks, US Senator from Massachusetts, native of Lancaster, New Hampshire and champion of The Weeks Act.  Weeks argued that in order to safeguard streamflow for interstate industry downstream, better forest management was needed.  The federal government began buying land for conservation.  The resuscitation of the White Mountains began.

As a way to keep this story alive for today’s visitors to the White Mountain National Forest, the Weeks Act Centennial Committee came up with the idea of a multimedia driving tour showcasing the past, present and possible futures of these managed lands.  They gave it the name “Weeks Act Legacy Trail”, basing it off The White Mountain Trail, a 100-mile driving loop made famous by White Mountain Attractions.  The route follows the area’s major roadways through 3 notches, large areas of National Forest and other managed areas working in partnership like The NH State Park System.

To create The Weeks Act Legacy Trail, the committee identified 40 sites related to the Weeks Act spaced evenly along the route.  Some sites play a role in the story leading up to the legislation. Others exemplify modern day forest management practices stemming from it.  The committee labeled sites according to eight Weeks Act-related themes, allowing travelers the option of focusing their tours on specific subjects.

“It’s one tour that caters to many interests,” says Frumie Selchen of The Arts Alliance of Northern NH.  “You can follow themes like Recreation, Conservation History, or Nature and Ecology, and you can  also choose Art and Literature, which have been important threads in the story of the White Mountains.  Together these themes paint a full picture of a region and its culture.”

The tour includes famous natural wonders like the waterfalls of Flume Gorge and Crawford Notch, short hikes to spectacular vistas like Artists Bluff and Mount Willard, and historical sites like the pioneer village of Passaconaway and the once thriving logging town of Livermore.   What happened to these towns?  Where can I take the kids on a short hike? Where can I fish for trout?  Answers to these questions and more are found along the journey.

There are extensive options for taking the tour.

“The goal was accessibility,” says Mainville.  “The driving tour makes it easy to explore and understand the National Forest.  So we needed to make the accessing tour itself easy.”

The starting point for the tour is the website weeksactlegacytrail.org.  Here, visitors can take a media-rich virtual tour filled with beautiful imagery from esteemed White Mountain photographers.  For those looking to take the tour with them on the road, the site is optimized for use on a mobile phone, has a downloadable audio tour and pdf tours you can print.  In summer of 2014, visitors will also see posters, maps and brochures at visitor centers around the White Mountains.

“We want visitors to be immersed in the story of The White Mountains,”  says Mainville. “The White Mountain National Forest is known as The People’s Forest.  The Weeks Act Legacy Trail lets everyone experience and appreciate this resource to its fullest.”

 

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About the Author

Chris Proulx is the owner of Borealis Productions, an independent media production company based in Conway, NH.  He is the media producer of The Weeks Act Legacy Trail and the station manager of White Mountains TV.

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