Posts Tagged ‘Weeks Act’

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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One hundred years ago today, on October 8, 1910, former president Theodore Roosevelt addressed the Southern Conservation Congress in Atlanta, Georgia. Roosevelt was just one of many speakers during the two-day meeting called to “discuss the problems of utilizing to the best permanent advantage the resources of the South as a whole.” The meeting itself evolved out of an effort to form a Georgia conservation association, but then it quickly grew into a region-wide meeting.

Initially Roosevelt was coming to Atlanta for a completely different and unlikely reason. He was to be the featured speaker at a fundraiser on October 8 to establish a memorial for John Chandler Harris, the man who had gathered together and published the immensely popular “Uncle Remus” stories about Br’er Rabbit, Br’er Fox, and other characters. Roosevelt had befriended Harris, who was known as “Uncle Remus,” and had hosted him at the White House prior to the latter’s death in 1908—one of the few times Harris left his home towards the end of his life. Ever the politician, Roosevelt had declared on a visit to Atlanta in 1905: “Presidents come and go, but Uncle Remus stays put. Georgia has done a great many things for the Union, but she has never done more than when she gave Mr. Joel Chandler Harris to American literature.” When word reached the organizers of the Southern Conservation Congress that Roosevelt would be in town in October of 1910, they invited him to address the congress.

As with elsewhere, interest in conserving natural resources in the South had blossomed during Roosevelt’s term in office. Timber and naval stores were critical industries in the South during Reconstruction, and also critical to the economic development of the region. Timber went into housing and construction not only in the South but in the new Midwestern cities; railroads around the country were huge consumers of logs for railroad ties. Lumbermen were quickly cutting their way through southern forests, with harvests reaching a peak of nearly 140 billion board-feet in 1909. The South, including the Carolinas and Virginia, were producing 47% of all timber in the U.S. Nearly 50% of the South’s original woodland area was gone by then. (For more on this, see the first chapter of Mountaineers and Rangers: A History of Federal Forest Management in the Southern Appalachians, 1900-81.)

Joining Roosevelt on the dais was none other than Gifford Pinchot, the former Forest Service chief and a close friend and conservation adviser of Roosevelt’s. Pinchot spoke first on the “Principles of Conservation” in which he emphasized that “far-sighted” southern leaders had been working for twenty years toward the creation of the Appalachian Forest Preserve and now had the opportunity to achieve victory if only the Senate would pass the bill before them. Not surprisingly, Roosevelt and others echoed that sentiment. That bill was the Weeks Bill, which called in part for granting the federal government the power to purchase private lands in the East to protect watersheds.


Southern Conservation Congress

Members of the Southern Conservation Congress. Gifford Pinchot is fifth from the right. (From "American Lumberman")


In its “Statement of Principles and Policies,” the Southern Conservation Congress explicitly backed passage of the Weeks Bill, declaring that “the federal government has the constitutional right amounting to a national duty to acquire lands for forest purposes in the interest of a future timber supply, watershed protection, navigation, power, and the general welfare of the people.” The following March, President William Howard Taft signed the Weeks Act into law. Three years later the federal government purchased about 100,000 acres from George Vanderbilt’s widow in North Carolina to establish the Pisgah National Forest—the first national forest in the South created under the Weeks Act.

Theodore Roosevelt’s remarks to the Southern Conservation Congress neatly encapsulate the conservationists’ rationale for supporting government intervention in natural resource management. His discussion of the South’s changing economic prosperity is particularly interesting.


Theodore Roosevelt's address to the Southern Conservation Congress. Click on the image to open the address in PDF format.


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Though the centennial of the Weeks Act is next year, the Forest History Society is already fielding queries about it from U.S. Forest Service employees and others whose work and livelihoods have been affected by the landmark legislation. Sponsored by Rep. John Weeks of Massachusetts and passed in 1911, the Weeks Act authorized the federal government to purchase lands in the eastern United States for stream-flow protection, and allowed for those lands to be managed as national forests by the U.S. Forest Service. The law also called for public-private cooperation for fire fighting around the country. Though subsequent laws expanded the power and reach of the act to western forests, for all intents and purposes the Weeks Act is the “organic act” of the eastern national forests.

To aid researchers and the generally inquisitive, the crack research and writing staff at FHS has combed through our library and archive and put together a new section of our U.S. Forest Service History pages about the history of the Weeks Act. There you will find an overview essay of the act and links to numerous items that document how the law came into being, its impact on land management, and how the law has been celebrated over the years. There’s even a PDF of the original law. You can find all of our outstanding research resources here.

For a brief video overview of the legislative history of the Weeks Act, take a look at the following clip, which is one of many DVD extras from “The Greatest Good,” a documentary on the history of the U.S. Forest Service:

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