New Hampshire’s White Mountains were not always as you see them today. The region’s early inhabitants, including the tribes of the Abenaki nation, knew the mountains as a region of mostly dense forest.
The 18th Century brought the arrival of European settlers who made the first significant dents in the wilderness, clearing land for roads, homes, farms and mills. Change accelerated in the 19th Century. The railroad arrived in the White Mountains bringing a new age of tourism. Artists came to celebrate the natural landscape and inspired even more visitors. At the same time, logging companies saw a new opportunity for profit. They owned much of the land in the White Mountains and the power of the locomotive made harvesting its trees suddenly efficient.
With that, the forests of the White Mountains fell under attack. Railroads for extracting timber were built deep into the forest along every river valley. Logging towns sprang up to support an onslaught of clear cutting. By the early 20th Century, the forests of the White Mountains were practically gone. Rivers were clogged with silt, their banks eroded and their waters polluted. Many companies left the hillsides covered in “slash” — the branches, tops and other unwanted parts of the trees. These hillsides were prime fuel for forest fire. When they did catch, they burned uncontrollably. In 1903 approximately 10% of the White Mountains burned, the smoke visible in much of the northeast.
A cry for conservation sprang from the tourism industry, from the art community and from advocates of stewardship like the Appalachian Mountain Club and Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests. The need for federal forest reserves in the east was presented to Congress regularly, but never with any success.
It was John Wingate Weeks, a US Congressman from Massachusetts and a Lancaster, NH native, who finally turned the tide. The White Mountains were headwaters for several major rivers that fueled industry throughout much of New England. Weeks insisted that federal control of these headwaters was necessary to guarantee the right of water-dependent industry downstream to operate without interruption. He also argued that federal control was needed for collaborated efforts against forest fires which in 1910 cost 85 lives and wasted approximately 8 billion board feet of valuable timber nationally. Environmentalism and capitalism had mostly been on opposing sides of the conservation argument. The Weeks Act presented the two ideals as compatible: federal forest reserves were necessary to protect the rights of private industry.
On February 15, 1911, The United States Congress passed the Weeks Act. President Taft signed it on March 1st, officially enabling the federal government to purchase private lands for the purpose of creating a forest reserve. The first land parcels in the White Mountains were purchased in 1914 — 7,000 acres for $13 apiece. In 1918, the White Mountain National Forest was officially established.
Today, the White Mountain National Forest is nearly 800,000 acres large and once again rich in scenic beauty, natural resources and recreational opportunity. Managed by the USDA Forest Service, it is back in the public domain and yours to enjoy.