Weeks Act Centennial Series: Revisiting “The Lands Nobody Wanted”

By Guest Contributor on December 3, 2010

To help celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Weeks Act in 2011, Peeling Back the Bark has 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 future of the eastern national forests. We invite you to join the conversation and post comments for Bob to respond to.

In 1977 (thirty-three years ago!) the late forest policy analyst Bill Shands and I did a book for The Conservation Foundation, the Washington, DC–based “think tank” where we both worked. Entitled The Lands Nobody Wanted: Policy for National Forests in the Eastern U.S., it provided nearly 300 pages of history, identification of issues, and a policy framework Land Nobody Wanted cover imagethat our non-partisan conservation organization set out for the 50 national forests, then totaling 24 million acres, in the Northeast, South, and Lake States. Nearly all of these forests got their start with Weeks Act purchases. We called the book “The Lands Nobody Wanted” because so much of this land, particularly before 1950, was considered of little or no economic value. Much of it was abandoned farmland—hilly, infertile, and heavily eroded. We noted that “land abandoned by owners who could not pay the taxes was acquired by the government very cheaply. Local people were desperate for any activity that would pump money into a community, so they welcomed establishment of forests which provided for federal investment in otherwise unused land and generated badly needed jobs. And national forests provided a work place for President Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps.” (p. 16)

By the time we published our book, these forests were very much in demand—for timber supply, for local and national recreation, for wildlife and wilderness. Bill Shands and I analyzed these forces, how they arose over time and where they seemed to be taking the forests. As part of our learning process, we convened meetings of 50 or so diverse stakeholders at four places: Warrenton, VA (national level organization); Uniontown, PA; Atlanta; and Waterville Valley, NH. Participants included national and local timber organizations, environmental groups, local elected officials, and federal and state land managers.

Recently, Steve Anderson asked me to reflect on our work, as part of the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Weeks Act. I welcomed the opportunity, in part because of curiosity about the changes that have occurred both in the demands on these forests and the management response. But I was also interested in how well the policy recommendations made toward the end of our book have fared over time. Which were adopted? What were the consequences? Were our recommendations able to accommodate changes in the economic and social context of these national forests?

Bill and I did not state this explicitly in the book, but our “policy planning horizon”—how far in the future we tried to look in making our recommendations—was about 30 years. So reviewing the topics covered in the book 33 years after publication will be a tough test of how well our work has fared. I’d also like to speculate as to the future role of these forests—again with an arbitrary 30-year time horizon—and perhaps comment on policies that might make that role as constructive as possible, both from a resource protection standpoint and from the perspective of human uses.

I will be adding to this blog over the course of the year to come, and I encourage comments, ideas, and reactions from anyone interested in the fascinating and important “Weeks Act” forests, as well as in the National Forests of the East, Midwest and South in general. The Lands Nobody Wanted will be my personal jumping off point, but it needn’t be yours. Any comment on the history, management, context, and (especially) the future of these forests would be most welcome.

But just to kick off this first blog entry in an organized way, let me pose some questions to readers: How has management and use of the forest(s) that you know best changed since 1977?  Are there still nearby communities dependent on National Forest timber?  Or, given the number of mill closures, are there timber-dependent communities at all?  Has your forest been influenced by any new uses, such as snowmobiles, building of rural retirement communities, or the shale gas boom?  You know the territory best, and I hope you will be this blog’s eyes and ears!

About the authors of The Lands Nobody Wanted:
William E. Shands continued to work on forest policy at The Conservation Foundation until his untimely death from cancer in 2004, at age 60. After working on The Lands Nobody Wanted, he produced books and reports on federal lands and their neighbors, Lake States forests, below-cost timber sales, and the effect of climate change on American forests. Bob Healy remained at the Foundation until 1986, writing books on the market for rural land, the California Coastal Commission, and “Competition for Land in the American South.” In 1986 he joined the faculty of Duke University, where he has taught courses on land use, environmental policy, tourism and protected areas, and international environmental management. He served as the Director of Duke’s Center for International Studies and its Center for North American Studies, and helped start the Program in International Development Policy. In 2007, he became Professor Emeritus of Environmental Policy in Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment and the Terry Sanford School of Public Policy. He continues to write (most recently Knowledge and Environmental Policy, MIT Press, 2010) and to teach at the Nicholas School. He remains fascinated by forests, and has been a board member of the Forest History Society since 2004.