If you had to guess who saved the White Mountain forests from destruction, you probably wouldn't come up with a politically ambitious investment banker.
He had quite a challenge on his hands. Timber barons and powerful politicians opposed the government purchase of federal land to save it. But then devastating forest fires broke out on clear-cut land in both the West and the East. Suddenly people saw the sense in saving the environment.
John Wingate Weeks
On the face of it, John Wingate Weeks was an improbable savior of the White Mountain forests. He had made a fortune as the founder of Hornblower & Weeks, a Boston investment and brokerage firm. At 40 he had enough money to turn his attention to Republican politics, starting out as a Newton, Mass., alderman in 1899.
He was a two-term congressman angling for a seat on the powerful House Banking Committee. House Speaker Joe Cannon, however, appointed him to the House Agriculture Committee.
The clever Cannon knew Weeks had concerns about the devastation of the White Mountain forests. Weeks was born on April 11, 1860 in Lancaster, N.H., the gateway to the Great North Woods region. He had grown up watching timber barons clear-cut enormous swathes of trees. He also owned a summer estate on Mt. Prospect with sweeping views of the White Mountains.
Weeks agreed to sponsor legislation to restore the forests.
White Mountain Forests
He wasn't the only one upset about the destruction of the White Mountain forests. Deforestation created an ugly landscape. In 1889 the Forest Service warned the timber barons were destroying the business of 1,100 inns and hotels in the mountains.
The clear-cutting caused flooding, erosion and forest fires. Devastating fires swept through the Zealand Valley in 1886 and 1897, laying waste to a lumber company town. Crawford Notch suffered terrible erosion.
In 1864, George Perkins Marsh laid the intellectual underpinnings for the preservation movement in his influential book, Man and Nature, or Physical geography as modified by human action.
In 1900, an Episcopal minister named John Johnson published a pamphlet called The Boa Constrictor of the White Mountains, Or the Worst ‘Trust’ in the World. Johnson had ministered to poor families in northern New Hampshire for years, and he knew the cause of their suffering: The New Hampshire Land Company, a monopoly formed by timber barons.
Johnson wrote the trust was starving out small-scale loggers by refusing to sell them wooded land. Eventually, the small loggers had to sell their own land to the trust at reduced prices. The trust, he wrote, was bent on reducing entire sections of the forest to a ‘blackened, hideous, howling wilderness.’
Johnson’s pamphlet stoked a public outcry. It also inspired the formation in 1901 of the Society for the Preservation of New Hampshire Forests. The group began petitioning the federal government to buy land in the White Mountains and create a national park.
Many, including Joe Cannon, strongly opposed the idea of the federal government buying private land. Led by western politicians, Congress rejected more than 40 bills that would preserve the eastern forests. Cannon declared, ‘not one cent for scenery.’
Then came the devastating western fires of 1910, a result of deforestation. The fires burned 3 million acres and killed 85 people. The fires changed some minds, including Cannon’s.
How They Did It
When Cannon appointed John Wingate Weeks to the Agriculture Committee, he told him, "if you can frame a forestry bill which you, as a business man, are willing to support, I will do what I can to get an opportunity to get its consideration in the House."
Weeks came up with a bill that businessmen could love. It justified federal purchases of land at the headwaters of navigable rivers for the purpose of promoting commerce.
The language of the 1911 Weeks Act allowed it to pass constitutional review under the commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution. In reality, the Weeks Act was the single most important legislation for the return of forests to the eastern United States. On March 1, 1911, President William Howard Taft signed the bill.
The Weeks Act saved major national forests, including Allegheny National Forest, White Mountain National Forest, Green Mountain National Forest, Pisgah National Forest, George Washington National Forest, and Ottawa National Forest.
John Wingate Weeks went on to serve as a U.S. senator and Secretary of War. His most enduring legacy, though, was the Weeks Act.
He died on July 12, 1926. His children donated his estate, atop Mount Prospect in Lancaster to the State of New Hampshire, It is now a 420-acre park that offers stunning views of the White Mountain National Forest.
This story about the savior of the White Mountain forests was updated in 2018.