Public lands in America: what have we un-learned in the past 100 years?

A Wilderness Society Web feature story decries the outrageous attacks on public wild lands which were jammed through in the recent federal budget bill. I am struck by the stark contrast between the strident anti-nature sentiment  present in the U.S. House today and what was happening in Congress a mere century ago.

What has our nation learned in a hundred years about the importance of setting aside some forested places, off limits to intensive commerce, for nature to flourish? And what, more to the point perhaps, have we un-learned?

Consider: a hundred years ago, the U.S. Congress passed landmark legislation known as the Weeks Act. Here is a wonderful little YouTube cartoon which tells the Weeks Act story, in less than four entertaining minutes. It is narrated by New Hampshire fifth-graders.

What would those fifth graders think about anti-wilderness riders contained in the most recent federal budget?

To recap, the Weeks Act  was the great legislative compromise which gave birth to National Forests in the northeast. Before that, eastern forestlands were privately owned, and suffering from declining water quality and terrible erosion due to decades of poor logging practices and development.

Today, roughly one out of every four Americans lives in an urban or suburban settings somewhere on the eastern seaboard, within a day’s drive of pristine, rugged, unfragmented mountain scenery in the national forests of New Hampshire and Vermont. The White Mountain and Green Mountain National Forests provide clean air and water, habitat for iconic species of birds and animals, and a sense of wellbeing which seems more precious than ever in the 21st century. Tens of thousands of acres of public land in northern New England are “re-wilding”, still gradually recovering from over-harvesting during the 19th century.

National forests established thanks to the Weeks Act are now under pressure on many fronts. There are proposals for new electrical transmission corridors, big new biomass incineration plants (based on overestimates of  available wood supply), strings of wind turbines which would require roadbuilding and blasting along the spines of mountain ridgelines. In 1910, elected leaders had the foresight  to set some places aside and incorporate restraint into land use policies on federal lands.  Today, our restraint is being severely tested.

The current leadership of the U.S. House needs a  refresher course from New Hampshire’s  fifth graders. Theirs, we hope, are the voices of the future.

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