Archive for the ‘Weeks Act Centennial’ Category

The new issue of Forest History Today is now available. It’s all about the Weeks Act, which turns 101 years old today. Forest History Society members have received a copy as a benefit of their membership. If you’re not a member but would like to purchase a copy, contact Andrea by email or by calling 919-682-9319. At $4 plus shipping, it’s quite the bargain, like the Weeks Act itself. You can read a few articles from the issue by visiting the FHT webpage. Below is the editor’s note.

Recently I was rereading a special issue of Runner’s World magazine on trail running. It came out around the same time as the centennial of the Weeks Act, March 1, 2011. I find that when I reread something months later, I look at it with fresh eyes and often pick up on ideas that I may have missed the first time. Plus I love the feeling that comes from reading something again, of letting the information really seep into my marrow, so that it becomes a part of me.

One article was about what the author called the “crown jewels” of running trails around the United States. What struck me this time—now reading it after I had absorbed information about the consequence and legacy of the Weeks Act into my bones—is how many of the trails are on eastern national forests, trails like the Shut-in Trail in the Pisgah National Forest, on land once owned by George Vanderbilt. And I thought: These forests are in America’s marrow, in many ways. The first national forests created under the Weeks Act run along the spine of the Appalachian Mountains, but the need for and desire to protect those lands must have been in the marrow of conservationists a hundred years ago. And it is still today.

I think that desire to preserve forests is part of the American character. The United States was the first country to create a national park, an action taken to protect the unique landscape of the Yellowstone area. The landscapes protected by the Weeks Act should also be celebrated. They may lack the wonder and spectacle of Yellowstone, but they have a beauty that draws millions of visitors every year. Most people may never walk through those landscapes, those Weeks Act forests; they may even drive through them oblivious to the fact that they are in a national forest, save the green and white sign that says “entering” and “leaving” with little fanfare, if they notice them at all. But when they turn on their faucets and there is clean water, or they step outside and cannot see the air they breathe, they are enjoying the benefits of those forests. And it’s because of the courage and vision of the men and women who have come before us, who recognized or simply acted upon an urge to protect those lands, that we have those forests today. It’s because of the courage of today’s conservationists that we continue to have those lands—their vision for how to expand those areas will be recognized and celebrated by future generations, too. Several of them are sharing their ideas on the pages of this magazine.

If you can, visit those forests. Walk, hike, bike, or run a trail; fish or hunt or camp on those lands; paddle down a river or on a lake that exists because the forests still exist. If you can’t get to those forests, bring them into your home—buy products derived from those forests and made by those who make their living from it, support an organization that fights to preserve them, read about the land and its amazing flora and fauna, or watch a film about them and revel in their grandeur. As for me, I’ll keep reading about the men and women who have dedicated their lives to the cause of conservation, who helped preserve the land that holds the trails on which I want to run, and absorbing that information into my marrow….

This special issue is the largest we’ve ever done, with three times the number of articles as a normal issue. Because of that, I could write two more pages describing the individual contributors and their articles. Instead, I’ll close with this: at the beginning of 2011, I thought I knew a great deal about the Weeks Act. After reading these articles, I now know more about its history and its future. Not only that, but reading them has reinvigorated my love of the national forests. I hope you’ll feel the same way, too.

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To help celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Weeks Act, we’ve asked Dr. Bob Healy of Duke University’s Nicholas School for the Environment and co-author of classic book, The Lands Nobody Wanted, to write a series of blog posts about the impact of the law. We invite you to join the conversation and post comments for Bob to respond to.

In an earlier blog post—and indeed in the book The Lands Nobody Wanted—I noted with some fascination the remarkably low prices that the Forest Service paid for land acquired under authority of the Weeks Act, especially in the 1930s. We are accustomed today to regard almost any land as being a fairly valuable asset. If it isn’t immediately useful today, we think, it will find some use tomorrow. And rural land in the well-watered eastern half of the country almost invariably has grown up in trees, not necessarily valuable in themselves due to their form, species, or lack of markets, but pretty to look at and home to a variety of wildlife. We also know that land has tended to be a rather good inflation hedge in the long run, and even (somewhat like gold) a “safe haven” for investors in troubled economic times. Even when stocks and bonds are going down, land has in recent decades often maintained its value or even increased it. This was true in two of the last severe recessions (1973-75) and (2008-present), when commodity prices, and the price of commodity-producing land, rose even while other investments were cratering.*

None of the factors mentioned above was at work during the Great Depression. Commodity prices were extremely low, money was very hard to borrow, the economy was experiencing deflation rather than inflation, and the public was pessimistic about the future. Some of the very cheapest Weeks Act land was that purchased in the southeastern U.S. during the mid-1930s. The low price of this land was remarkable, even by the standards of the Great Depression. Consider that a nationwide survey of construction workers done by the government in 1936 found average wages of $0.92 per hour, or $7.36 for an eight hour day. Another source estimates average wages per year in 1935 at $1,368, or $6.25 per day. And Franklin Roosevelt fought for a national minimum wage of $0.25 per hour, or $2.00 per day. Using these as guidelines, an average day’s work for an employed person could have bought almost three acres in Alabama’s Clay County ($2.14 per acre) or Cleburne County ($2.36), or nearly two acres in Bibb County ($3.23 per acre) or Perry County ($3.40). Even a person making the national minimum wage could have purchased more than half an acre with a day’s work!

Intrigued, I recently visited two units of the Talladega National Forest, in north-central Alabama. What could I learn about this VERY cheap land and what has happened to it today? Some of the results were predictable, others surprising. I had assumed that the land had belonged to poor, unproductive farms, perhaps tenant farms, and that low product prices and debt had forced people off the land. And that the Civilian Conservation Corps had reforested the old farmland, as it had in so many other places in the East and South. The actual situation is somewhat more complicated.


Wind erosion has banked soil against fence, Alabama, 1952 (FHS2934). The soil is similar to what was found in land that is now part of the Talladega National Forest.

The easternmost of the two forest units is the Shoal Creek Ranger District, northeast of Montgomery; the westernmost is the Oakmulgee Ranger District, south of Tuscaloosa. Both districts have significant amounts of what once was farmland—farms on poor soils, low in nutrients, and badly damaged by continual cropping of cotton and other row crops. The structure of much of this soil—clay mixed with sand—is such that it melts like sugar in a hard rain, creating gullies that can very easily get out of control in a single season. A great deal of land in both districts, however, consists of stony, highly dissected hills. This land was not suitable for cropping—though some unfortunate people tried. It was, however, mostly covered by extensive stands of longleaf pines. (more…)

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To help celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Weeks Act, we’ve asked Dr. Bob Healy of Duke University’s Nicholas School for the Environment to write a series of blog posts in which he’ll reflect on his classic book, The Lands Nobody Wanted, and the eastern national forests. This is the 3rd in the series.

Fifty national forests, twenty-three states, in the Northeast, Appalachians, Southeast, Lake States, and South-central parts of the country. Over 23,000,000 acres of mountains, rushing streams, hiking trails, hunting and fishing spots, and diverse ecosystems to explore. Some impressive timber stands and some quiet spots for contemplation. This is the legacy of the Weeks Act.

I thought it would be a useful exercise to identify my three favorite Weeks Act forests, to explain why I like them, and to encourage you to identify your own favorites. This is scarcely a scientific exercise and is based to a significant extent on my own personal experience—when I asked Jamie Lewis, editor of Forest History Today, for his list, the favorite was the George Washington National Forest, in west central Virginia. Certainly a very nice place, but not even my favorite Virginia Forest (it’s the Jefferson, if you’re curious.) “Why?” I asked. “I used to enjoy hiking and camping there when I went to college at James Madison University,” he replied. So we all have our reasons. Below are mine, and I solicit your own list.

White Mountain National Forest (New Hampshire)

I think I am not alone in considering this forest the best of them all, the kind of place that very likely would have been an early national park but for the destructive cutting and sheep grazing that that taken place in the late 19th century when the nation first decided to designate parks.

As with so many of the eastern national forests, the mixture of public and private land often makes it difficult for one to know when one is on private land, when on the national forest, and when in a state park or other kind of reserve. For example, a clear highlight of the forest is Mt. Washington, the second highest mountain in the eastern U.S. and home to some of the windiest, coldest weather ever recorded. (It can be quite cold even in summer, when this sort of thing is quite welcome after a warm day in the valley below.) The summit is a 60-acre state park, surrounded by hundreds of thousands of acres of national forest. Similarly, much of the charm of the area comes from small towns and mountain resorts, all found on private land. The difference the national forest makes, in the White Mountains as in so many other locations, is to protect the overall view. One can look up at the peaks of the Presidential Range and view a sea of trees, not a hodgepodge of vacation houses, large clearcuts, and “abandoned in progress” land developments.

White Mountain National Forest, 2011 (Courtesy of Jamie Lewis)

Much of the pleasure of the White Mountains is just driving through them. But there’s also hiking, on the Appalachian Trail (which tracks the mountain summits) and on many side trails; maple sugaring in early spring, fishing one of the rushing streams, and (my longtime personal favorite) a Memorial Day visit to Tuckerman’s Ravine, a corner of Mt. Washington where the foolhardy attempt to ski the last remaining snow that tends to collect there. This often results in unintentional cold water swimming, a harbinger of the summer season to come.

Pisgah National Forest (North Carolina)

For me, the Pisgah’s attraction starts with the Cradle of Forestry. This is a re-creation of the place where German forester Dr. Carl Schenck operated for 15 years starting in 1898—the Biltmore Forest School, first in America. One can walk among restored and recreated buildings and see how field forestry was taught, and how the students lived. There’s a church, a general store, and a ranger’s cabin where costumed volunteers demonstrate family life in a mountain community of the time. The Pisgah also has historical importance as one of the first large forest units purchased under the Weeks Act—in 1914-1917, George Vanderbilt’s widow sold tens of thousands of forested acres originally managed for Vanderbilt by Gifford Pinchot to the government at bargain prices.

The road to the Cradle of Forestry is a special treat—very common when one enters a national forest, but notable nonetheless. When one drives into the forest from Brevard, NC, on a hot summer’s day, the first experience is the huge shopping center at the highway intersection, then a few hundred yards of ice cream stands and other local businesses, and then…a dark, cool forest. The temperature must fall 15 degrees in an instant. It’s one of life’s small pleasures—the coolness of the tree canopy—but I am surely not the only person who has a mental list of where and when to expect it. And this is one of the places.

A Painted Bunting (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

A number of miles up the same road, atop the ridge near Mt. Pisgah, is the Pisgah Inn, an inholding with a restaurant and motel accommodations overlooking the valleys below. It’s the place where I saw my first-ever Painted Bunting. The campground on the other side of the road is ablaze with rhododendrons in early summer. Just behind the hotel one can pick up the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, a longstanding dream of a 1,100-mile trail that meanders across North Carolina from the Appalachians to the Outer Banks. The section on Mt. Pisgah is where one can take a short hike or dream of a long one.

The lively and historic city of Asheville and the French Broad River bisect the Pisgah. Farther north, the forest tracks part of the Blue Ridge Parkway, offers the Linville Gorge and Shining Rock Wilderness Areas, Linville Falls, and Mt. Mitchell—highest mountain in the East—impressive, though not as daunting as the slightly lower Mt. Washington in the White Mountain NF.

Ocala National Forest (Florida)

The White Mountain and the Pisgah National Forests are likely to appear on most lists, but my impression is that the Ocala NF has more of a local clientele. To be sure, it’s located only 65 miles north of Orlando, and is a wonderful camping stop for those heading southward. Given the heat and insects, I think winter camping is best. A fond memory is a stop many years ago, in early December, before the snowbirds hit the road, in an almost deserted campground there. In the morning, my wife and I were besieged by local wildlife (squirrels, chipmunks, and—unless memory fails—a rather aggressive rabbit) who were used to living off the detritus of campers and found us to be the only game in town.

Salt Springs (Photo by Sandra Friend, US Forest Service. Courtesy of National Forests in Florida)

But the real draw of the Ocala is its waters. Given that the highest mountain in Florida (Britton Hill, actually) is only 344 feet above sea level, the state is not a place for whitewater enthusiasts. But Florida has springs that bubble from the ground at rates of up to thousands of gallons per minute. The Ocala has four of the larger springs—Alexander Springs, Salt Springs, Silver Glen Springs, and (my favorite) Juniper Springs. The springs are notable for several things. First, at least in Florida, the water temperature is close to constant, about 72 degrees. That’s just right, especially during the oppressive summer heat, when even the ocean seems too warm.

Second, spring water has an amazing clarity. It is natural water as one imagines it but rarely encounters it—pure and perfect. Third, a large spring creates just enough of a current to allow a canoe, rubber boat, or—even better—a large inner tube to drift along purposefully while the occupant alternates between wildlife spotting and pure relaxation. Some of the facilities at the Ocala’s springs were built by the Civilian Conservation Corps, adding a historical dimension.

Incidentally, lest this point be raised by a reader, I’m aware that the Ocala was designated a national forest by President Theodore Roosevelt in November 1908, three years before the Weeks Act. It was based on public domain that contained valuable timber but that had not yet been claimed by homesteaders. It was the first (some might say tied with the Chotawhatchee NF, also in Florida and created at about the same time) national forest east of the Mississippi. Nevertheless, the Ocala got about one-third of its land from Weeks Act purchases in the 1930s, and additions from the Land and Water Conservation Fund, whose purchase authority is based on the Weeks Act. So I’ll call it a Weeks Act forest for this discussion.

So that’s my list of personal favorites. Let me admit from the start that I’m neither a hunter nor a trout fisherman, and I’m light on experience in the Lakes States. So those, among other things, provide an automatic bias, which other readers may not share. Do let the blog know what your favorite one, two or three Weeks Act forests might be.

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To help celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Weeks Act, we have asked Dr. Bob Healy of Duke University’s Nicholas School for the Environment to write a series of blog posts in which he’ll reflect on his classic book, The Lands Nobody Wanted, and the future of the eastern national forests. This is part 2 in the series. We invite you to join the conversation and post comments for Bob to respond to.

There is much discussion these days about government “investments.”  As an economist, I have to assume that what is meant is a federal expenditure that is not only immediately useful (like hurricane forecasting) but that yields a continuing stream of income or benefits (improving education at all levels is probably the one most discussed).  It would also presumably be something unlikely to be done, or done as well, by private capital.  Looking historically, it appears that the government has made some exceptionally good investments (the Louisiana Purchase, the land-grant universities) and some very poor ones (the high-rise public housing projects of the 1950s, many now razed.)

I’ve been giving some thought to the “investment” aspects of the Weeks Act forests.  From a strictly monetary standpoint, they seem to have been a remarkable bargain for the government.  I suspect that even John Weeks and other proponents of land purchase in 1911 did not foresee the vast increase in cheap, marginal farmland that would be dumped on the market, and available for government purchase, during the 1930s.  A combination of the devastation of the small farm sector in the 1920s and 1930s, with its movement of millions of people from marginal farms to the cities, and the general collapse of economic activity in the Great Depression caused enormous amounts of marginal land to become available for purchase, often through auction for unpaid taxes.

In 1912, the federal government used the Weeks Law to buy 287,698 acres at an average price of $5.65 per acre.  Purchases during the period 1912–1931 amounted to a total of 4.9 million acres, at an average price of $4.40 per acre.  But then came the Depression, and with it greatly increased purchases, at greatly reduced prices.  For example, in 1935 alone, Weeks Act purchases totaled 4.2 million acres, at an average price of only $2.38 per acre.  From 1932 through 1942 (when Weeks Act purchases slowed significantly because of World War II) the government bought 14.1 million acres, paying only $3.44 per acre. This, of course, was not just a consequence of the authority granted by the Weeks Act, but also government appropriations.  In 1912, the government appropriated $2 million.  But for 1934–35, there was a sudden jump to $34 million, followed by $12 million in 1936.  By 1942, the federal government had purchased a total of 19.1 million acres for $71 million, or only $3.72 per acre.

Cut over area, Louisiana.

Cut-over longleaf pine area on Kisatchie National Forest lands, Louisiana, 1930.

The bulk of the land bought during the Depression was so worn out by a combination of cultivation, cutting, and subsequent burning of slash, and erosion, that many considered it essentially worthless.  It was the sort of land, found particularly though not exclusively in the Appalachians and the Piedmont South, that pioneer soil conservationist Hugh Hammond Bennett often termed “destroyed.” In a speech given in 1934, Bennett said of land in a Piedmont county in South Carolina:

No one lives on the land. From the higher points, all the surrounding country was observed to be much the same: Destroyed land, worn-out and abandoned as far as the eye could reach. Silence pervaded the landscape, desolation, irretrievable ruin. Man had laid bare the bosom of the earth to the wrath of the elements. Nature had wreaked vengeance upon this once beautiful countryside; and yet, the same agency had set to work to rebuild what it had torn down. Pine trees had sprung up in every direction. Some of the land was too poor for trees, but much of it was covered with volunteer forests. Thus, the first step toward rejuvenation of the worn-out land was well under way. Unfortunately, the rehabilitation in all probability will require more than a thousand years. (Speech at Ohio State University, January 31, 1934)

Bennett had, of course, failed to appreciate that the forests themselves would have value, both economic and environmental.

So, how have the Eastern National Forests (ENF) fared as an investment?  First, let’s consider purely monetary returns.  Between 1940 and Jan. 1, 2010, a representative average of large company common stocks (S&P 500—this is the farthest back the series can be obtained) increased 8,600 percent (i.e., 86 fold).  During the same period an investment in Treasury 10-year bonds would have climbed 2,650 percent and inflation would have raised price levels 1,500 percent (which should be subtracted from the 8,600 percent and 2,650 percent nominal returns to get “real” returns.)  Now let’s value the ENFs in 1940 at $4.00 per acre, the price at which during that year the government purchased 545,000 acres.  What are they worth today?

As someone who has long studied rural land values, I can assert with some confidence that an “average market price” for forestland simply doesn’t exist.  And even if it did, the ENFs include areas of unusual scenic value (think of the Blue Ridge Parkway through the Pisgah, Nantahala, and George Washington-Jefferson National Forests, or the Appalachian Trail through the White Mountain National Forest) and timber stands that are older and better managed than the “average” for their respective states.  So let’s try another approach.  If the government had sold the ENFs in 1940 at $4.00 per acre and bought (or avoided the need to issue) its own bonds, it would have made money if the average price of an acre of ENF land in 2010 was $106 per acre or larger.  If the government had (adventurously!) invested in the stock market, it would have made a good investment decision if the average price per acre of ENF land in 2010 was $344 per acre.  I think that most people would consider either $106 or $344 to be far, far below what the ENFs are worth in a market sense.  So there can be little doubt that the government got a bargain, or, putting it another way, made a good long-term investment.

Weeks Act acreage approved

Acreage approved for purchase under the Weeks Act by fiscal year, 1912-1976 (click to enlarge)

But clearly the ENFs have values far beyond their monetary or real estate value.  They provide water control, wildlife, timber, and recreation.  And they increasingly are seen as reservoirs of biological diversity and possible buffers against some of the effects of climate change. Some of these values were foreseen by Weeks and his colleagues, others were not.  These additional values will be the subject of a future blog post.

Note: The calculations above are meant to be broadly illustrative.  S&P 500 returns include reinvested dividends as does the index of 10-year government bonds.  Certainly the government would have made a higher return in the stock market if it had included small company securities in its portfolio.  But that would have been quite unrealistic—even more so than investing in the 500 largest firms, which make up the S&P 500.  Returns on government’s actual purchases, rather than using a 1940 base would affect the return somewhat, but the calculations are tedious and unlikely to much affect the results.

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To help celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Weeks Act in 2011, Peeling Back the Bark has asked Dr. Bob Healy of Duke University’s Nicholas School for the Environment to write a series of blog posts in which he’ll reflect on his classic book, The Lands Nobody Wanted, and the future of the eastern national forests. We invite you to join the conversation and post comments for Bob to respond to.

In 1977 (thirty-three years ago!) the late forest policy analyst Bill Shands and I did a book for The Conservation Foundation, the Washington, DC–based “think tank” where we both worked. Entitled The Lands Nobody Wanted: Policy for National Forests in the Eastern U.S., it provided nearly 300 pages of history, identification of issues, and a policy framework Land Nobody Wanted cover imagethat our non-partisan conservation organization set out for the 50 national forests, then totaling 24 million acres, in the Northeast, South, and Lake States. Nearly all of these forests got their start with Weeks Act purchases. We called the book “The Lands Nobody Wanted” because so much of this land, particularly before 1950, was considered of little or no economic value. Much of it was abandoned farmland—hilly, infertile, and heavily eroded. We noted that “land abandoned by owners who could not pay the taxes was acquired by the government very cheaply. Local people were desperate for any activity that would pump money into a community, so they welcomed establishment of forests which provided for federal investment in otherwise unused land and generated badly needed jobs. And national forests provided a work place for President Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps.” (p. 16)

By the time we published our book, these forests were very much in demand—for timber supply, for local and national recreation, for wildlife and wilderness. Bill Shands and I analyzed these forces, how they arose over time and where they seemed to be taking the forests. As part of our learning process, we convened meetings of 50 or so diverse stakeholders at four places: Warrenton, VA (national level organization); Uniontown, PA; Atlanta; and Waterville Valley, NH. Participants included national and local timber organizations, environmental groups, local elected officials, and federal and state land managers.

Recently, Steve Anderson asked me to reflect on our work, as part of the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Weeks Act. I welcomed the opportunity, in part because of curiosity about the changes that have occurred both in the demands on these forests and the management response. But I was also interested in how well the policy recommendations made toward the end of our book have fared over time. Which were adopted? What were the consequences? Were our recommendations able to accommodate changes in the economic and social context of these national forests?

Bill and I did not state this explicitly in the book, but our “policy planning horizon”—how far in the future we tried to look in making our recommendations—was about 30 years. So reviewing the topics covered in the book 33 years after publication will be a tough test of how well our work has fared. I’d also like to speculate as to the future role of these forests—again with an arbitrary 30-year time horizon—and perhaps comment on policies that might make that role as constructive as possible, both from a resource protection standpoint and from the perspective of human uses.

I will be adding to this blog over the course of the year to come, and I encourage comments, ideas, and reactions from anyone interested in the fascinating and important “Weeks Act” forests, as well as in the National Forests of the East, Midwest and South in general. The Lands Nobody Wanted will be my personal jumping off point, but it needn’t be yours. Any comment on the history, management, context, and (especially) the future of these forests would be most welcome.

But just to kick off this first blog entry in an organized way, let me pose some questions to readers: How has management and use of the forest(s) that you know best changed since 1977?  Are there still nearby communities dependent on National Forest timber?  Or, given the number of mill closures, are there timber-dependent communities at all?  Has your forest been influenced by any new uses, such as snowmobiles, building of rural retirement communities, or the shale gas boom?  You know the territory best, and I hope you will be this blog’s eyes and ears!

About the authors of The Lands Nobody Wanted:
William E. Shands continued to work on forest policy at The Conservation Foundation until his untimely death from cancer in 2004, at age 60. After working on The Lands Nobody Wanted, he produced books and reports on federal lands and their neighbors, Lake States forests, below-cost timber sales, and the effect of climate change on American forests. Bob Healy remained at the Foundation until 1986, writing books on the market for rural land, the California Coastal Commission, and “Competition for Land in the American South.” In 1986 he joined the faculty of Duke University, where he has taught courses on land use, environmental policy, tourism and protected areas, and international environmental management. He served as the Director of Duke’s Center for International Studies and its Center for North American Studies, and helped start the Program in International Development Policy. In 2007, he became Professor Emeritus of Environmental Policy in Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment and the Terry Sanford School of Public Policy. He continues to write (most recently Knowledge and Environmental Policy, MIT Press, 2010) and to teach at the Nicholas School. He remains fascinated by forests, and has been a board member of the Forest History Society since 2004.

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