The Weeks Act and New Hampshire: A Centennial Retrospective

February 26th, 2011 by Kelly

Op-Ed by Char Miller
The Weeks Act and New Hampshire: A Centennial Retrospective

Dear Colleagues: The Weeks Act, named for its floor manager Rep. John Weeks (R-MA), and which President William Howard Taft signed into law on March 1, 1911, gave the federal government the authority to create national forests across the east, changing the face of New England through the establishment of the White and Green Mountains national forests. It is thus one of the nation’s most important pieces of environmental legislation. But almost no knows anything about it. Below please find my 648-word op-ed that explores the Act’s enduring significance; if you accept it, and if possible, it would be great if the piece could run close to March 1, the initiative’s official centennial.

I have written extensively on the history of the USDA Forest Service and am author of Gifford Pinchot and the Making of Modern Environmentalism and Ground Work: Conservation in American Culture. Naturally enough, I hope you will find this commentary of interest to your readers. Best wishes, Char

char miller, director
w.m. keck professor of environmental analysis
environmental analysis program
pomona college
185 e. sixth street
claremont ca 91711
The Weeks Act, which President William Howard Taft signed into law on March 1, 1911, authorized the federal government to create national forests across the east. It thus changed the face of New Hampshire, making it one of the most significant pieces of environmental legislation in American history.

Yet few Americans have ever heard of the bill, or know of its impact on their lives, which is why its centennial gives us a golden opportunity to learn about its transformative power and enduring significance in this era of climate change.

Start with the Weeks Act’s most obvious impact: its appropriations helped purchase the White Mountains National Forest (1918) in New Hampshire (and later Vermont’s Green Mountain National Forest in 1932). For the many folks who hunt, hike, fish and camp on these treasured public lands, the Act is of inescapable value.

It is of national significance, too, for when it authorized the federal government to purchase private land for eastern national forests it did so in the context of cooperative relations between Washington and the states. The bill’s title makes this clear: “AN ACT to enable any State to cooperate with any other State or States, or with the United States, for the protection of the watersheds of navigable streams, and to appoint a commission for the acquisition of lands for the purpose of conserving the navigability of navigable rivers.” This insistence on intergovernmental collaboration is one of the Weeks Act’s groundbreaking qualities.

Another key feature is embodied in the arcane phrase, “the navigability of navigable waters.” It allowed the Forest Service to target high-country watersheds of rivers crossing state boundaries, cleverly linking watershed protection to the “Commerce Clause” of the U. S. Constitution. That clause granted the federal government the responsibility to regulate interstate commerce, and through the Weeks Act this authority was extended to interstate streamflow.

Those who pushed for the Weeks Act, named for its savvy congressional floor manager, John W. Weeks (R-MA), could not know that it would have such far-reaching consequences. All they had wanted was some form of federal protection for the Appalachian Mountains. Late nineteenth-century New England activists were deeply worried about deforestation’s impact on rampaging floodwaters and damaging fires, notably along the upper reaches of the Merrimack and Connecticut watersheds. Southern conservationists were equally concerned that heavy logging was intensifying flood damage in their region. Independently, these groups lobbied for national forests like those that already existed in the west.

But because the federal government owned almost no land in the east, the only way it could manage forests there was if it bought them. Whether it had this constitutional right however was hotly debated, and that’s one reason why the Weeks Act, an early version of which was introduced in 1900, took so long to become law.

These maneuverings would not have succeeded without the broad coalition of local interests demanding the Weeks Act’s passage. Its key northern proponents were the Appalachian Mountain Club and the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests. In the south, the Appalachian National Forest Association led the way. Without their collective and persistent lobbying, we would not have protected upwards of 26 million acres throughout the east. New Hampshire’s major watersheds would be less green, its vistas less stunning, and its economy less vibrant.

By forging public-private partnerships and empowering grassroots activism, the Weeks Act coalitions responded creatively to what they perceived as their generation’s greatest environmental challenge. We must do the same as if we expect to build a more sustainable society on this warming planet.

We might also adopt Teddy Roosevelt’s charge, delivered while stumping for the Weeks Act in 1910: “I ask you to profit from the mistakes made elsewhere…and so handle [natural resources] that you leave your land as a heritage to your children, increased and not impaired in permanent value.”

Our obligation is no less pressing or solemn.

Char Miller directs the Environmental Analysis Program at Pomona College in Claremont CA, and is author of Gifford Pinchot and the Making of Modern Environmentalism and Ground Work: Conservation in American Culture.