CONCORD, N.H. — A century ago, the idea of the federal government buying private land and turning it into public forest was novel — and controversial.
Now, forest, conservation and education officials are planning field trips, lectures and arts festivals to commemorate next year's 100th anniversary of the Weeks Act, which led to the creation of national forests in the eastern U.S.
Today, national forests encompass more than 25 million acres in 26 eastern states, the U.S. Forest Service says.
"It is one of the single most important pieces of environmental legislation in the 20th century," said Char Miller, director of environmental analysis at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif. "It helps to establish new relationships between the federal government and the states. ... It lays the groundwork for all levels of government to begin to collaborate on environmental issues."
The law helped shape a national attitude about conserving public lands, but scholars and environmentalists agree that most people don't understand what it represents.
"It's probably true that most of us take a place like the White Mountain National Forest for granted," said Jack Savage, a spokesman for the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, which lobbied for the law in the early 1900s. "We assume it's kind of always been there."
The 800,000-acre forest in New Hampshire attracts millions of visitors each year, a major draw in a state where tourism is one of the largest industries.
By the turn of the century, the federal government owned forests west of the Mississippi, but much of the land in the East had been privately owned since colonial times. It was heavily cut over, and the land became prone to erosion and fire.
The future of the forests and their watersheds were at stake. In New Hampshire, for example, grand hotels in the north — the White Mountain region — were worried about attracting tourists. In the south, mill owners who relied on water power from rivers wanted to stop flooding.
Enter John Wingate Weeks, who grew up on a farm in Lancaster, which includes part of the White Mountain National Forest. Weeks was a well-known banker in Boston before his election to Congress in 1904, representing Massachusetts. He understood the interests associated with the forest and helped bring them together to propose the bill in 1908.
"He had a lot of connections with businesses. He lived on a mountaintop," said naturalist David Govatski of Jefferson, N.H., referring to Weeks' summer home atop Mount Prospect in Lancaster, now part of a state park. Govatski is writing a book about Weeks, who went on to become a U.S. senator and served as Secretary of War before he died in 1926.
Robert Bast, an architect in Hinesburg, Vt., who is a great-grandson of Weeks, said Weeks "could see firsthand and what was happening in the White Mountains in terms of lumbering and logging. On a personal level, it was clear to him that the way this resource was being handled was inappropriate."
But Congress resisted the bill. Some members felt the government lacked the power under the U.S. Constitution to buy the land. Others didn't believe that the protection of high-country watersheds could benefit downstream businesses, such as the mills. And then there was House Speaker Joe Cannon's comment: "Not 1 cent for scenery."
Studies were done in western forests to prove that there was a relationship between upstream and downstream interests, and negotiations helped toward agreements on the other objections. Eventually, the bill passed and President William Howard Taft signed it into law on March 1, 1911.
The first forest tract bought under the act was part of what became the Pisgah National Forest in the Appalachian Mountains in North Carolina. Forests were replanted and erosion controlled, wildfires were reduced through state-federal partnerships and watersheds were protected.
"Without the Weeks Act, we might not have an Endangered Species Act, we might not have a Clean Water or Clean Air Act, we might not have a Wilderness Act because there would have been no precedent for this new relationship between the states and the federal government to cooperate in the ways that the Weeks Act produced," Miller said.
Planning is under way for Weeks centennial events. In New Hampshire, they'll include field trips to the forest, educational programs for children and families and a festival called Eight Days of Weeks in August. Plymouth State University featured an exhibit on the Weeks Act this year, which is touring the state.
Rebecca More, a great-granddaughter of Weeks and a history professor at Brown University, said it's worth taking note of the law a century later, calling it "a classic example of collaboration and compromise across party lines of something that is beneficial for the public."
"This is a lesson that, unfortunately, is getting lost in the shuffle today," she said. "This is a lesson for the ages."
Weeks Act Centennial: http://www.fs.fed.us/land/staff/weeks-act.html