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Posts Tagged ‘Weeks Act’

On October 17, 1916, the Pisgah National Forest was the first national forest established under the Weeks Act of 1911. Written by FHS historian Jamie Lewis, this post was originally published in the online version of the Asheville Citizen-Times on October 14, 2016, and in print on October 16 to mark the centennial.

“When people walk around this forest … at every step of the way, they’re encountering nature, some of which has been regenerated by the initiatives of those generations they know not—they know nothing about. And I think that that’s ultimately the greatest gift: that you’ve given to them beautiful, working landscapes and you don’t know where they came from.”

Historian Char Miller closes our new documentary film, America’s First Forest, by acknowledging those who labored to create the Pisgah National Forest, which celebrates its centennial on October 17. We chose that quote because it simultaneously summed up the Pisgah’s history and looked to its future by implicitly asking who would carry on the work of the early generations in managing this national forest.

Miller is right. The Pisgah is a gift from many people—some whose names are familiar but many whose names are not. Most have heard of George Vanderbilt, or his Biltmore Estate. His greatest gift, however, was not to himself but to the nation. He hired renowned landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted to design Biltmore’s grounds. Creator of New York’s Central Park and other urban green spaces, Olmsted saw in this project opportunity to give back to the nation, and through Vanderbilt a way to do so. In 1890, Vanderbilt needed a forester. America needed forestry. Olmsted advised hiring a professional forester who would demonstrate to America that one could cut trees and preserve the forest at the same time.

Vanderbilt hired Gifford Pinchot, who then crafted the first-ever sustainable forest management plan in the United States. Pinchot later gave back to the country in his own way: in 1905, he established the U.S. Forest Service, providing the nation with an institution to manage its national forests and grasslands. But before leaving Vanderbilt’s employ in 1895, Pinchot did two things: he facilitated Vanderbilt’s purchase of an additional 100,000 acres, which Vanderbilt named Pisgah Forest, and he recommended hiring German forester Carl Schenck to implement his management plan.

Schenck’s “experimental” practices not only restored the forest but also improved its wildlife and fish habitat. This turned Pisgah Forest into a revenue source as well as a playground for its owner: a sustainably managed forest can provide all those things and more.

In 1898 Schenck established the Biltmore Forest School—the country’s first forestry school—to educate men wanting to become forest managers or owners. Many of the nearly 400 graduates also served in the Forest Service. The impact of Schenck’s gift is still seen on public and private forests today. Thankfully Congress preserved the school grounds as the Cradle of Forestry in America historic site.

On top, George W. Vanderbilt; next to him, his friend and physician, Dr. S. W. Battle; next, Mrs. Edith Vanderbilt in her riding suit; lowest, Miss Marion Olmsted, daughter of the famous landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr. (FHS356)

On top, George W. Vanderbilt; next to him, his friend and physician, Dr. S. W. Battle; next, Mrs. Edith Vanderbilt in her riding suit; lowest, Miss Marion Olmsted, daughter of the famous landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr. Photo taken in 1901 at Lookingglass Rock. (FHS356)

These men are not the only ones to thank for the Pisgah National Forest. In 1899 Asheville physician Chase Ambler mobilized citizens to protect the region’s scenery and climate. Pressured by conservation groups from the South and New England, Congress passed the Weeks Act of 1911, which empowered the federal government to purchase private land for the Forest Service to manage. This legislative gift pleased not only preservationists like Ambler by protecting scenery and recreation areas, but also conservationists because the land remained available for logging and other extractive activities.

In 1914 George Vanderbilt’s widow, Edith, sold Pisgah Forest for a fraction of its value in part to “perpetuate” the conservation legacy of her husband, and as a “contribution” to the American people. Pisgah Forest became the nucleus of the Pisgah National Forest, the first established under the Weeks Act, and Biltmore Forest School graduate Verne Rhoades became its first supervisor, in 1916.

But that is the past. The future of the Pisgah National Forest (and its neighbor the Nantahala) is being written now. The U.S. Forest Service is drafting a forest management plan to guide how it manages the forests for the next dozen or so years. At public meetings, the Forest Service has been hearing from citizens and groups like the Pisgah Conservancy to help it craft the forest’s future. Like Carl Schenck and Vern Rhoades before them, Pisgah’s current managers face great uncertainties, only now in the form of forest pests and disease, climate change, and a place so attractive that its visitors are “loving it to death.” Those who cherish the Pisgah for its “beautiful, working landscapes” can honor those who gave us that gift by continuing to sustainably manage it. That can ultimately be our greatest gift to future generations.

Normally the entrance to a national forest has a small sign with the Forest Service shield on it. This entrance to the Pisgah National Forest was a memorial arch constructed to honor the memory of the men of Transylvania County, North Carolina, killed in World War I. (U.S. Forest Service photo -- negative number 185843)

Normally the entrance to a national forest has a small sign with the Forest Service shield on it. This entrance to the Pisgah National Forest was a memorial arch constructed to honor the memory of the men of Transylvania County, North Carolina, killed in World War I. (U.S. Forest Service photo — negative number 185843)

 

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At this time of year the mountains of North Carolina are a great place to go view the leaves changing colors. One popular destination is Mt. Mitchell, the highest peak east of the Rocky Mountains, found just off the Blue Ridge Parkway at mile marker #355. You may be familiar with the name Mt. Mitchell because of the Weeks Act. The Mt. Mitchell Purchase Unit was among the first ones organized under the 1911 law. But do you know how the mountain came to be named? It’s a story steeped in intrigue and mystery.

Born in Connecticut in 1793, Elisha Mitchell graduated from Yale College in 1813 and taught for a few years in the North before coming to the University of North Carolina in 1818 to teach mathematics and natural philosophy. In 1825 he added chemistry, geology, and mineralogy courses to his repertoire. That same year he also took over and completed the geological survey of North Carolina. In all, he taught for 39 years. In 1821, Mitchell was ordained as a minister and combined “preaching with his education and scientific interests for the rest of his life.” The University of Alabama awarded him an honorary doctor of divinity degree in 1838, which explains the “D.D.” on the memorial plaque.

The following description of how the mountain came to be named for him and why he’s buried atop it comes from the University of North Carolina’s “Documenting the South” website. You can also learn more in Timothy Silver’s book, Mount Mitchell and the Black Mountains: An Environmental History of the Highest Peaks in Eastern America (UNC Press 2003), another source consulted for this post.

“Mitchell is best known for his measurement of the Black Mountain in the Blue Ridge and his claim that one of its peaks was the highest point in the United States east of the Rocky Mountains. He first noted in 1828, in the diary he kept while working on the geological survey, that he believed the Black Mountain to be the highest peak in the area. In 1835 and again in 1838 he measured the mountain, showing the highest peak to be higher than Mount Washington in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. In 1844 he returned with improved instruments and measured the highest peak at 6,708 feet, 250 feet higher than Mount Washington. By that time local people were referring to the peak as Mount Mitchell. However, Mitchell’s claim was challenged in 1855, when [Congressman] Thomas Clingman [a former student of Mitchell’s], arguing that Mitchell had measured the wrong peak, insisted that the one [Clingman] had climbed and measured stood at 6,941 feet. As a result of the ensuing controversy, Mitchell returned to the Black Mountains in 1857 in a final attempt to prove Clingman wrong and justify his own previous measurements. On 27 June, leaving his son and guides, he started out alone, was caught in a thunderstorm, and apparently fell down a waterfall and drowned in the pool below.”

Despite Mitchell’s efforts to prove that he had found the tallest peak east of the Rockies—which is how he came to be in the mountains and meet his death—the mystery of who first climbed it and made that measurement have never been conclusively resolved. Clingman’s claim that in 1855 it was he, and not Mitchell, who had first measured the peak fell victim to the outpouring of sympathy for Mitchell following the beloved and respected professor’s death. The argument, which had been playing out in the popular press at the time of Mitchell’s death, then turned even nastier when some of Clingman’s political opponents called him a murderer even though he wasn’t there and Mitchell’s death was ruled an accident. With Clingman’s personal and political reputation damaged beyond hope, he dropped the matter. Mitchell’s defenders nevertheless continued gathering “evidence” and sworn statements that seemingly proved that he had discovered the mountain on his first trip in 1835 (subsequent trips in 1838 and 1844 had not resulted in accurate measurements either). The removal of Mitchell’s body from its original burial site in Asheville to the top of Mt. Mitchell on June 16, 1858, which was done at the insistence of his supporters, cemented the professor’s claim in the public’s mind. That he was later entombed there simply made the cementing of opinion literal. Today Mitchell is remembered as a “hero and martyr,” while Clingman is “a back-biting scoundrel.”

On September 28, 1928—seventy years after his remains had been reinterred on the mountain that bore his name—a permanent memorial plaque was dedicated to Elisha Mitchell at the peak of Mt. Mitchell. FHS has photos of both the temporary and permanent grave markers installed in the 1920s. The original wooden lookout tower, built in 1916 and visible in the second image below, was replaced in 1926 by a stone tower, part of which can be seen in pictures further down. That tower was replaced in 1959, and that one was replaced in 2009 with a handicap-accessible observation deck (at bottom). Today the grave and overlook are in Mt. Mitchell State Park. The photos are from our North Carolina Forest Service Photograph Collection.

Elisha Mitchell temporary tablet 1922

This temporary tablet marking Elisha Mitchell’s gravesite was installed in 1922.

Elisha Mitchell temporary tablet on Mt. Mitchell

Josephus Daniels at Dr. Mitchell’s grave, with the temporary tablet, in 1922. Note the wooden lookout tower in background. In 1916, at the time Mt. Mitchell State Park was established, the state built a covered wooden platform about 15 feet high. That was replaced in 1926 with a stone tower designed in a medieval motif.

(more…)

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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.

FHS2934

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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Weeks Act 1911March 1, 2011, marks the centennial of the Weeks Act—the “organic act” of the eastern national forests. The law has been one of the most successful pieces of conservation legislation in U.S. history. The Weeks Act permitted the federal government to purchase private land in order to protect the headwaters of rivers and watersheds in the eastern United States and funded fire protection efforts through federal, state, and private cooperation. Its passage made possible the creation of the eastern national forests, with nearly 20 million acres of forestland having been protected under the Act to date. As one historian has noted, “No single law has been more important in the return of the forests to the eastern United States” than the Weeks Act.

The Forest History Society staff has revised and expanded the Weeks Act pages within the U.S. Forest Service History section of our website. This new and improved section may be found at www.WeeksAct.org. Our Weeks Act history pages feature four separate sections and a huge collection of primary documents. You’ll also find a Weeks Act history video, taken from the DVD extras of the film The Greatest Good, that explains how the law came about.

Staff historian Jamie Lewis has been very busy this week promoting the centennial. He appeared on NPR stations in both North Carolina and New Hampshire. In North Carolina, WUNC interviewed him for the report “Forestry Law Created in NC Turns 100,” and today he appeared on New Hampshire Public Radio’s program “The Exchange” as a call-in guest. Guest Dave Govatski, secretary of the Weeks Act Centennial Coordinating Committee and coauthor of a book on the Eastern National Forests which the Weeks Act helped to create, gave a nice plug for the Forest History Society and its online resources as well. Jamie was also one of several historians interviewed by NHPR for a series of short reports on the national impact of the Weeks Act. You can find all that New Hampshire Public Radio is doing on the Weeks Act at: http://www.nhpr.org/special/weeksact.

This weekend Jamie will have an opinion piece published in the Raleigh News and Observer and one on March 27 in the Asheville Citizen-Times focusing on North Carolina’s role in the passage of the Weeks Act. Along with Steve Anderson, Jamie was also interviewed for a 3-part series in the Asheville Citizen-Times on the law and its impact on western North Carolina, slated to appear beginning March 6.

We encourage you to share the news with others to help remind them of the importance of the Weeks Act and to celebrate the centennial of the eastern national forests. Feel free to share with us how you plan on celebrating the Weeks Act in 2011: Are you throwing a party, spending time in a forest, or reading Bob Healy’s ongoing blog series reflecting on the act? Or all three, maybe even at the same time?

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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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