Celebrating 100 Years Of The “People’s Forest”
What began with a federal law for land conservation and a small land purchase has, a century later, evolved into nearly 800,000 acres of national forest with many partners, 1,200 miles of hiking trails, and bounties of recreational opportunities for the millions of people visiting it each year.
The White Mountain National Forest, also called the “people’s forest,” was officially signed into existence by Pres. Woodrow Wilson on May 16, 1918.
“Without the partnerships, it wouldn’t be what it is today,” said WMNF Supervisor Clare Mendelsohn. “Those partnerships are going to be critical going forward. Our goal is to engage our stakeholders and encourage their investment to keep it a place many will benefit from for the next 100 years.”
To mark the day of Wilson’s signing and the forest’s centennial, a historical exhibit of the WMNF will launch May 16 at the Museum of the White Mountains at Plymouth State University. It will run through Sept. 12.
Called the “The People’s Forest: A Centennial Celebration of the White Mountain National Forest,” the exhibit for all ages will chronicle the different eras of land management and conservation and include art and photographs as well as speakers and special events such as hikes and field trips.
“We’re celebrating a century of service not only by our Forest Service employees, but all the people we work with who continue to support and manage the land, and all the volunteers and partners we have been with from the very beginning,” said Tiffany Benna, spokesperson for the U.S. Forest Service and WMNF.
The three-part centennial celebration involves a time to reflect, a time to create what will be the next 100 years of forest management, and engaging the public, she said.
“We want to ensure these resources will be here for future generations,” said Benna.
The federally managed, multi-use national forest has long been a place for scientific research and has increasingly become the backbone of the North Country tourist economy.
A pivotal step in its creation occurred in 1911, when the U.S. Congress passed the Weeks Act, sponsored by U.S. Rep. John Wingate Weeks, R-MA, which was initially aimed at watershed protection for municipalities downriver from large logging operations.
It involved the purchasing of upriver forest tracts and watersheds.
“There was so much timbering going on in the White Mountains that it was having an impact on population centers down south, like Manchester,” said Chris Thayer, director of North Country programs and outreach for the Appalachian Mountain Club, which has been a key stakeholder in the WMNF since its inception.
“The other thing is tourists were coming into this region and were seeing the over-logging and desecration to the landscape that were not being done in a sustainable way,” he said.
In 1914, as the Weeks Act began to encompass broader land conservation, the first land purchase for the WMNF was made in Benton.
But its informal beginnings were actually earlier, and stem from the founding of the Boston-based AMC, which was all about the exploration, mapping, and scientific inquiry of the White Mountains, efforts that predate the national forest, said Thayer.
In 1888, AMC, whose three-part mission is recreation, education, and conservation, built its first hut in the WMNF, at Mt. Madison.
In 1907, it published its first edition of its White Mountain guide, which is still published today.
In 1914, AMC received the first Forest Service permit, for a permanent structure, and built the Carter Notch Hut, which still stands.
In 1933, AMC donated three pieces of land for inclusion in the WMNF.
In 1935, it received the first special use permit issued by the Forest Service for the hut system and has renewed it every 30 years.
In 1980, AMC launched its Adopt-A-Trail program, which involves more than 1,000 miles of trails, including 350 miles in the WMNF that are maintained by volunteers.
In 1996, AMC partnered with the USFS and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to restore the Robbins’ cinqefoil, an endangered alpine plant found along Franconia Ridge and Mt. Washington.
“It was really taking a beating from hiking use and the popularity in those locations,” said Thayer. “That public-private partnership allowed the plant to be removed from the endangered species list in 2002. There are not many things removed from the endangered species list. It’s a success story of education, but also of stewardship.”
In 2000, AMC created the alpine stewardship program, which involves more than 2,000 volunteers giving their time to manage trail use in sensitive alpine areas.
Like AMC, another early stakeholder is the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, whose 1904 mission statement is “to perpetuate the forests of New Hampshire by their wise use and their complete reservation in places of special scenic beauty.”
“What’s remarkable about the forest is that coalition, that coming together to strike a balance, is intact 100 years later,” said Dave Anderson, SPNHF’s senior director of education.
What is unique about the WMNF - which is used by the USFS as a model for training some of its top managers - is its balance involving stakeholders willing to compromise to include resources like wilderness along with forest management areas, he said.
“The milestone of 100 years is a great opportunity to recognize the work of our predecessors and realize the responsibility we have to our successors, that we don’t diminish the forest and its opportunities for future generations.”
In 2018,the WMNF, one of 154 national forests, continues as a place for hiking, skiing and camping and is also used commercially, in restricted capacities and areas, for activities such as logging.
“Even to this day, our timber resource is important as a driver for local economies and local communities,” said Thayer.
The WMNF, which also includes more than 100 miles of the Appalachian Trail, sees some 5 to 6 million visitors annually.
Its volunteers - helping with trail maintenance, grass mowing, manning information desks, and near-countless other tasks - put in between 35,000 to 50,000 volunteer hours each year, said Benna.
“It’s one of the Northeast’s favorite playgrounds,” said Thayer. “It’s appropriately called the ‘people’s forest’ and I think that’s true because of the people’s attachment to the land base for hundreds and hundreds of years. There’s a passion for it in local communities. There is a public and private partnership.”
Since that first purchase of land in 1914, the WMNF is up to about 780,000 acres that include some 50,000 acres in Maine, said Benna.
In addition to SPNHF and AMC, stakeholders include PSU, the Randolph Mountain Club, Trout Unlimited, and the New Hampshire Timber Association, said Benna.
“All of those partners have been with us to manage the land and help with education about what a working forest is and to share the wonderful opportunities to get into nature and get away from some of the hustle-and-bustle in our lives,” she said. “It’s always been a very collaborative effort to manage the White Mountain National Forest.”
A new addition to that effort is the White Mountain Trail Collective, made up of clubs and backbone organizations that Benna said work together to leverage more resources across the entire forest and not just pockets of it.
“The White Mountain Trail Collective is exactly what we are thinking about when we look ahead,” she said.
Looking to this summer as part of the centennial, Thayer said the PSU exhibit will have a traveling exhibit component that will make its way through the region.
“Our roots and our heritage are in the White Mountains of New Hampshire,” Thayer said of the AMC. “We are happy to work with our partners and showcase the once-in-a-lifetime 100th anniversary of the forest this year.”
The USFS and its partners are also gearing up for the 200th anniversary, next year, of the 8.5-mile Crawford Path, which goes up to Mt. Washington and is said to be the oldest continuously used trail in the country.
This year, there will be more than 20 crews working on the trail for more than 20 weeks, said Benna.
Also being celebrated in 2018 are the 50th anniversaries of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act and the National Trail System Act.
“It’s going to be a wonderful and busy summer,” said Benna.
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