In 1911 something very important occurred for American forests. The Weeks Act was introduced by and named for Massachusetts Representative John W. Weeks. Before this legislation, forests in the East were privately owned — and for the most part were mismanaged, unprotected and damaged from poor logging practices and development. The forests had declining water quality and were at risk of large wildfires, erosion and flooding.
“The vision people had of public land one hundred years ago would not have happened if they could not see the big picture,” Brent Martin, Southern Appalachian program director at The Wilderness Society said. “One hundred years ago, Eastern forests were cut over and there was no such thing as a national forest. A group of visionary people created what are now the national park and national forest systems in the East.”
The one hundredth anniversary of the legislation, which created about twenty million acres of national forest across twenty-six eastern states is definitely something to celebrate. Historians have said that this is the most important conservation legislation in U.S. history — not only because it granted the government the ability to purchase land in the East but also because it outlined groundbreaking guidelines for water protection and fire management that affect public lands across the country.
It took nine million dollars for the government to purchase the first six million acres of land across the East and begin to restore Eastern forests. These land purchases were the start of what would become the Nantahala, Pisgah, White Mountain, Green Mountain, George Washington and Ottawa National Forests and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, among others.
“The creation of these public lands meant jobs for many people in the East,” Martin said. “Reforesting these mountains created a rural economy in North Carolina and many other communities. National forests are the driving agent — the heart of growth — for many communities in the East.”
This funding also provided land for one of the longest trails in the United States: the Appalachian Trail. It boasts about 2,175 miles of winding paths that run through fourteen states from Georgia to Maine, and hosts endless recreational opportunities like hiking, camping, fishing and hunting.
The United States’ temperate forests were in danger and the Weeks Act was the first step in the right direction to address this problem — yet it did not protect Eastern forests completely. Unfortunately, climate change, urbanization, increased demand for water, and logging still threaten these public places.
“The Weeks Act may turn out to be a critical tool in our efforts to mitigate and provide for adaptation to climate change,” Leanne Klyza Linck, assistant vice president for Eastern conservation at The Wilderness Society said. “Connecting national forest land to other protected lands will give species a chance to survive the dramatic changes in their habitat. More importantly, these places are the only opportunity people have to connect with nature since the East is home to so many densely populated cities.”
In fact, over seventy million people live within a days’ drive of public lands in the East. Many of these residents see those lands as an essential element of their communities.
In the next hundred years, we should focus on watershed restoration and increasing the amount of acres protected. John Weeks, Congress and President Taft understood the risks of not preserving our wild lands — fire hazard, declining economy and water pollution. The 112th Congress needs to follow their example.
“These public lands inform my entire existence, they give me some sense of ownership of a wild place,” Martin said. “National parks and forests are what this region identifies with. If you go to a sporting goods store or an art gallery, you will see equipment and images celebrating what our public lands have to offer.”
Much of the beauty that spans from the Great Lakes to the temperate Appalachians to the wetlands of Florida can be attributed to the Weeks Act — quite a legacy. The Wilderness Society continues to work so that history will repeat itself and Congress will protect or restore millions more acres in the years to come.
For an example of the economic value provided by and perils challenging East Coast forests, see http://www.rockymountainclimate.org/images/VA_SpecialPlaces.pdf
Courtesy of U.S. National Park Service.
Seneca Creek in West Virginia. Photo by Solomon Rodd.