My Favorite Weeks Act Forests
To help celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Weeks Act, we’ve 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 eastern national forests. This is the 3rd in the series.
Fifty national forests, twenty-three states, in the Northeast, Appalachians, Southeast, Lake States, and South-central parts of the country. Over 23,000,000 acres of mountains, rushing streams, hiking trails, hunting and fishing spots, and diverse ecosystems to explore. Some impressive timber stands and some quiet spots for contemplation. This is the legacy of the Weeks Act.
I thought it would be a useful exercise to identify my three favorite Weeks Act forests, to explain why I like them, and to encourage you to identify your own favorites. This is scarcely a scientific exercise and is based to a significant extent on my own personal experience—when I asked Jamie Lewis, editor of Forest History Today, for his list, the favorite was the George Washington National Forest, in west central Virginia. Certainly a very nice place, but not even my favorite Virginia Forest (it’s the Jefferson, if you’re curious.) “Why?” I asked. “I used to enjoy hiking and camping there when I went to college at James Madison University,” he replied. So we all have our reasons. Below are mine, and I solicit your own list.
White Mountain National Forest (New Hampshire)
I think I am not alone in considering this forest the best of them all, the kind of place that very likely would have been an early national park but for the destructive cutting and sheep grazing that that taken place in the late 19th century when the nation first decided to designate parks.
As with so many of the eastern national forests, the mixture of public and private land often makes it difficult for one to know when one is on private land, when on the national forest, and when in a state park or other kind of reserve. For example, a clear highlight of the forest is Mt. Washington, the second highest mountain in the eastern U.S. and home to some of the windiest, coldest weather ever recorded. (It can be quite cold even in summer, when this sort of thing is quite welcome after a warm day in the valley below.) The summit is a 60-acre state park, surrounded by hundreds of thousands of acres of national forest. Similarly, much of the charm of the area comes from small towns and mountain resorts, all found on private land. The difference the national forest makes, in the White Mountains as in so many other locations, is to protect the overall view. One can look up at the peaks of the Presidential Range and view a sea of trees, not a hodgepodge of vacation houses, large clearcuts, and “abandoned in progress” land developments.
Much of the pleasure of the White Mountains is just driving through them. But there’s also hiking, on the Appalachian Trail (which tracks the mountain summits) and on many side trails; maple sugaring in early spring, fishing one of the rushing streams, and (my longtime personal favorite) a Memorial Day visit to Tuckerman’s Ravine, a corner of Mt. Washington where the foolhardy attempt to ski the last remaining snow that tends to collect there. This often results in unintentional cold water swimming, a harbinger of the summer season to come.
Pisgah National Forest (North Carolina)
For me, the Pisgah’s attraction starts with the Cradle of Forestry. This is a re-creation of the place where German forester Dr. Carl Schenck operated for 15 years starting in 1898—the Biltmore Forest School, first in America. One can walk among restored and recreated buildings and see how field forestry was taught, and how the students lived. There’s a church, a general store, and a ranger’s cabin where costumed volunteers demonstrate family life in a mountain community of the time. The Pisgah also has historical importance as one of the first large forest units purchased under the Weeks Act—in 1914-1917, George Vanderbilt’s widow sold tens of thousands of forested acres originally managed for Vanderbilt by Gifford Pinchot to the government at bargain prices.
The road to the Cradle of Forestry is a special treat—very common when one enters a national forest, but notable nonetheless. When one drives into the forest from Brevard, NC, on a hot summer’s day, the first experience is the huge shopping center at the highway intersection, then a few hundred yards of ice cream stands and other local businesses, and then…a dark, cool forest. The temperature must fall 15 degrees in an instant. It’s one of life’s small pleasures—the coolness of the tree canopy—but I am surely not the only person who has a mental list of where and when to expect it. And this is one of the places.
A number of miles up the same road, atop the ridge near Mt. Pisgah, is the Pisgah Inn, an inholding with a restaurant and motel accommodations overlooking the valleys below. It’s the place where I saw my first-ever Painted Bunting. The campground on the other side of the road is ablaze with rhododendrons in early summer. Just behind the hotel one can pick up the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, a longstanding dream of a 1,100-mile trail that meanders across North Carolina from the Appalachians to the Outer Banks. The section on Mt. Pisgah is where one can take a short hike or dream of a long one.
The lively and historic city of Asheville and the French Broad River bisect the Pisgah. Farther north, the forest tracks part of the Blue Ridge Parkway, offers the Linville Gorge and Shining Rock Wilderness Areas, Linville Falls, and Mt. Mitchell—highest mountain in the East—impressive, though not as daunting as the slightly lower Mt. Washington in the White Mountain NF.
Ocala National Forest (Florida)
The White Mountain and the Pisgah National Forests are likely to appear on most lists, but my impression is that the Ocala NF has more of a local clientele. To be sure, it’s located only 65 miles north of Orlando, and is a wonderful camping stop for those heading southward. Given the heat and insects, I think winter camping is best. A fond memory is a stop many years ago, in early December, before the snowbirds hit the road, in an almost deserted campground there. In the morning, my wife and I were besieged by local wildlife (squirrels, chipmunks, and—unless memory fails—a rather aggressive rabbit) who were used to living off the detritus of campers and found us to be the only game in town.
But the real draw of the Ocala is its waters. Given that the highest mountain in Florida (Britton Hill, actually) is only 344 feet above sea level, the state is not a place for whitewater enthusiasts. But Florida has springs that bubble from the ground at rates of up to thousands of gallons per minute. The Ocala has four of the larger springs—Alexander Springs, Salt Springs, Silver Glen Springs, and (my favorite) Juniper Springs. The springs are notable for several things. First, at least in Florida, the water temperature is close to constant, about 72 degrees. That’s just right, especially during the oppressive summer heat, when even the ocean seems too warm.
Second, spring water has an amazing clarity. It is natural water as one imagines it but rarely encounters it—pure and perfect. Third, a large spring creates just enough of a current to allow a canoe, rubber boat, or—even better—a large inner tube to drift along purposefully while the occupant alternates between wildlife spotting and pure relaxation. Some of the facilities at the Ocala’s springs were built by the Civilian Conservation Corps, adding a historical dimension.
Incidentally, lest this point be raised by a reader, I’m aware that the Ocala was designated a national forest by President Theodore Roosevelt in November 1908, three years before the Weeks Act. It was based on public domain that contained valuable timber but that had not yet been claimed by homesteaders. It was the first (some might say tied with the Chotawhatchee NF, also in Florida and created at about the same time) national forest east of the Mississippi. Nevertheless, the Ocala got about one-third of its land from Weeks Act purchases in the 1930s, and additions from the Land and Water Conservation Fund, whose purchase authority is based on the Weeks Act. So I’ll call it a Weeks Act forest for this discussion.
So that’s my list of personal favorites. Let me admit from the start that I’m neither a hunter nor a trout fisherman, and I’m light on experience in the Lakes States. So those, among other things, provide an automatic bias, which other readers may not share. Do let the blog know what your favorite one, two or three Weeks Act forests might be.