Tuesday, August 14th: 100 Years of the White Mountain National Forest

Expand

By SEAN MCDONALD

The white mountain national forest is definitely the crown jewel of New England. It is within a day’s drive to 70 million people. It is 13% of the area of New Hampshire, and it is a huge economic engine and a place where people come to recreate all four seasons.

It covers 13% of the state of New Hampshire. Each year, an estimated 6 million people come here for the beauty and recreation.

“We have phenomenal recreation opportunities across the landscape, and that is what we’re known for. 1200 miles of trails, 160 of which is the Appalachian Trail that runs through the national forest.” (Clare Mendelsohn - Forest Supervisor, WMNF). 

Today the white mountain national forest is 807,000 acres in New Hampshire and Maine, owned by the citizens and preserved for our enjoyment.

“This is beautiful hardwood forest we are walking through, with northern hardwoods, sugar maple, and yellow birch.” (David Govatski - Naturalist). 

David Govatski is a former forest ranger and naturalist. A quick tour in the forest showed a trove of natural attractions.

“This is glacial erratic. This is a rock that was transported by the glacier about 12,000 years ago and dropped here.” (David Govatski - Naturalist). 

That rock may date back thousands of years. But the trees do not, like this sugar maple.

“I know this was logged about 75 years ago. That’s a pretty good clue. It was clear-cut in this area here.” (David Govatski - Naturalist). 

Back more than a century ago, this place was coveted for profit, not protection. Most of this trail was clear-cut.

“The white mountain region was heavily logged in the 1890’s through about 1920. In 1903, there was a series of forest fires that burned over 85,000 acres, and that really scared a lot of people.” (David Govatski - Naturalist). 

“There had been widespread clear-cutting. It was really unsustainable forest practice going on, which led to an outcry.” (Clare Mendelsohn - Forest Supervisor, WMNF). 

Outcry and eventually action. Aggressive logging was taking a toll on the ecosystem, wildfires tore through much of the land. And pressure was brought on Washington to act. In 1918, President Woodrow Wilson designated 360,000 acres to become the White Mountain National Forest.

“The real reason that a group of people came together, private citizens included, and fought for the preservation of the landscape was to protect the headwaters within the forest for clean water availability, drinking water, streams for fish habitat.” (Clare Mendelsohn - Forest Supervisor, WMNF). 

Now a national forest, this stretch of land was on a path to preservation and recreation. More land was purchased and added over the decades since. Measures were put in place to make sure logging was done properly here to protect headwaters. Year-round tourism started to take off, with anything from skiing in winter to hiking in summer. Many staying at the Dolly Copp campground, which dates back to 1915.

To celebrate the 100th anniversary of the national forest, the museum of the white mountains in Plymouth opened an exhibit titled the people’s forest.

“So what we’re really looking for in this exhibit is not only an experience of those 100 years, but to think about how you and I can be part of the next 100 years.” (Cynthia Robinson - Museum Director). 

Here, the story is told through forest inspired art, through memorabilia and hand-painted magic lantern slides, newly digitized with the help of students at Plymouth State University.

“These are lantern slides that have not been seen since the early 1900s because nobody has had something to show them in. Now they are digitized, the forest will be able to use them." (Cynthia Robinson - Museum Director). 

The slides also document the destructive forest fires decades ago, and the fire towers built to watch for them. The early tools used by rangers are a major part of the exhibit.

“The Osborne Fire Finder is such an interesting contraption that helps you triangulate from the top of a lookout station where those fires can be.” (Cynthia Robinson - Museum Director). 

The museum also has an interactive classroom and a carefully detailed timeline of important forest events over the 10 decades. And in a nod to community spirit, a touch screen map of all the volunteer groups which maintain trails in the forest.

“We have about 33,000 hours annually in our volunteers.” (Cynthia Robinson - Museum Director). 

The exhibit also looks to the future, inviting people to contribute their own ideas. To keep this place the natural treasure it has become over the last 100 years.

“From a scenery standpoint, it is a spectacular place. The Kancamagus Highway, national scenic byways. People come here from all over the world just to see the scenery, especially in autumn as the leaves are turning. The forest is growing back. There is timber harvesting. It is definitely a changed place from what it was.” (David Govatski - Naturalist). 

In the spirit of the people’s forest, we ask you to describe the white mountain national forest, as we say here’s to a hundred more.