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  • Photo of Alpine Plants on Franconia Ridge. Photo by Forrest Seavey.
  • Courtesy photo

    Congressman and Lancaster, New Hampshire native, John W. Weeks was instrumental in passing legislation that lead to the creation of eastern National Forests
  • Photo courtesy of WMNF, USDA Forest Service.

    Owl’s Head fire at head of Franconia Brook in 1907. Photo taken from Camp 13, White Mountains.
  • A view of the Pemigewasset Wilderness, a massive tract of undeveloped forest that was rejuvenated following devastating fires from loggers around the start of the 20th century. With the help of the Weeks Act the Pemigewasset is a healthy mature forest that offers wildlife habitat, water protection, recreation and forestry production. Photo by Garth Dickerson. Courtesy White Mountain National Forest

Sunday, July 17, 2011

NH man key to public Eastern woodlands

National forests are something we pretty much take for granted, and really don’t think much about unless we go camping or hiking or swimming at one. We know the White Mountains are up north in New Hampshire and we might know that there is such a thing as the White Mountain National Forest, but as far as we know, it has always been so.

But it hasn’t.

One hundred years ago, there were no national forests east of the Mississippi River. Now there are 41, and it’s all because of John Wingate Weeks, born near Lancaster, who was responsible for the national Weeks Act, passed in 1911, that established Eastern national forests, including the one in the White Mountains.

To mark the anniversary, the White Mountain National Forest and several partner organizations are hosting a festival from 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Friday, July 29, at the base of the Mount Washington Auto Road. It will feature entertainment (imagine songs about lumber camps)l hands-on, family-friendly activities; and craft exhibitions.

The celebration has been in the planning stage for more than two years, said Colleen Mainville, the forest volunteer coordinator for the White Mountain National Forest.

“It’s going to be a fun-filled family festival, a free family event,” she said in a recent telephone interview.

Besides a fun time, she said, the idea is to promote awareness of what a public forest is.

“The (Weeks) legislation made the creation of national forests possible: It’s public land, the people’s land,” she said. “We thought that a public festival atmosphere for that day would be the best way to celebrate and to get others involved.”

National forests, she said, are not as well-known as national parks, perhaps because trees, ponds and hiking paths lack the drama and public draw of things like Old Faithful in Yellowstone National Park, or the Grand Canyon; but they are important and they offer a lot to people who love nature.

And, Mainville said, they’re not very far away.

“The national forests are in the backyard of the Eastern Seaboard,” she said. “We are the playground. People drive through and don’t realize” they’re in a national forest, “but it would be nice if they were aware of why we’re here and how we got here.”

That is certainly one of the reasons for the festival.

It would be hard to overestimate the importance of national forests, said Marcy Weeks, a distant cousin of John Wingate Weeks and the event coordinator for the celebration.

“I’m a corporate event planner, and every once in a while, I have an opportunity to do something in New Hampshire and I jump at it,” she said of her involvement.

She, like Mainville, anticipates a “family-oriented fun day where people are able to take part in interactive displays and talk with exhibitors. It’s really got a heavy slant on family fun and understanding all that the forests have to offer.”

One thing she hopes folks learn, she said, is how important the forest is to our watersheds and “how maintaining the forest takes a role in providing fresh water for us,” she explained. That played a role 100 years ago, helping to get support for the Weeks Act because supporters “showed how important forests were to watersheds. It’s as important an aspect today as it was 100 years ago.”

What the Weeks Act did was provide funds for the federal government to purchase land all along the East Coast to create the 41 national forests that exist today.

“The White Mountain National Forest in our back yard is the important one to all of us,” Weeks said, “but all up and down the East Coast” there are forests.

Without the efforts of John Wingate Weeks, that land would have remained in private hands and instead of being forest land today, could be … anything.

Instead, organizers of the celebration said, “these valuable forests now provide clean water, wildlife habitat, recreation opportunities (and) forest products.”

Joining the White Mountain National Forest in planning the celebration are the society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, the Appalachian Mountain Club, the state Department of Resources and Economic Development, Plymouth State University, Weeks State Park Association, the Arts Alliance of Northern New Hampshire and the New Hampshire Timberland Owners Association.

There will be two pavilions set up at the base of the road. The Main Pavilion will host the stage with day-long entertainment, including Jeff Warner performing lumber camp songs, fiddler Patrick Ross, the band Big Paws featuring Marek Bennett, historical interpreter Dick Fortin and storyteller Rebecca Rule. It will feature partnerships in conservation, recreation and a White Mountain marketplace showcasing area services, products and attractions.

The Forest and Family Experience Pavilion will have hands-on activities including a Mount Washington weather observatory demonstration, a U.S. Forest Service soil investigation pit and Junior Ranger activities. The state Division of Forests and Lands will have a wildfire truck display and there will be a wildland fire obstacle course “for children of all ages.”