White Mountain Forests in Peril

AN area of mountain and forest in the northern part of New Hampshire, commonly called the White Mountains, is rightly described as the Switzerland of America. East of the Rocky Mountains there are many noteworthy high peaks and clusters of peaks in the Alleghany Range, but there is no group, from Texas to Maine or from the Rockies to the Atlantic, that presents the same attractions, unique and individual, that are furnished by the White Mountain region. These peaks are clothed with forests, which in many cases cover their summits, though the peaks that reach above the tree line, like Mounts Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Lafayette, and Moosilauke, are so high that their summits rise above the limits of vegetation. By common consent, great numbers of people turn yearly to this region for the enjoyment of natural scenery, and for free recreation among the eternal hills. It is easily accessible from all parts of the country, and is the leading feature of the great national park which Mr. Murray has outlined as the future resort of the American people. It comprises an area of thirty square miles, and a large part of it is still a virgin forest. In 1867, Governor Harriman was induced to part with this domain, then in the possession of the State of New Hampshire, for the paltry sum of twenty-six thousand dollars. It was bought by speculators, who have used the forests for the cutting of the mature lumber, in order to pay taxes and obtain a proper interest upon the investment, and a large part of the region has hardly changed hands since the State disposed of it; but in recent years the increasing scarcity of spruce lumber and the existing tariff on building materials have brought such pressure to bear upon those who own this property to cut the trees below the line of their maturity that, though extensive lumbering operations have been going on all through the section for the last half-centnry, there has been no time when these mountain forests were threatened with extermination to the extent that they are threatened now.

Besides the temptations already mentioned, the manufacture of paper from wood pulp has induced some owners of the forest adjacent to the White Mountain district to cut down the spruce-trees as well as the poplar and the birch to mere saplings, so that the forest will require at least twenty-five years to renew itself ; while other owners have cleared off the trees so entirely that, after the fire has run over the denuded forest, not only is all vegetation consumed, but the vitality of the soil to reproduce trees is also destroyed. A ready illustration of these methods of lumbering is furnished to any one who goes from Fabyan’s to the base of Mount Washington, and overlooks what was once a magnificent wilderness, but where now the axe and the fire have combined to leave what looks like a frightful desolation. All along the banks of the Aimnonoosuc, from its rise in the Presidential Range until it flows into the Connecticut, one sees the same frightful slaughter of forest, the trees cut off entirely, and the land growing up with birch and cherry bushes, which show that the soil has been ruined, and that what ought to be enchanting scenery along a great railway has been ruthlessly laid waste by the lumbermen and by fire. If you take the Wing road, and go up to Whitefield, and thence to Jefferson, you find that the entire stretch of lowland in this region — soil that is comparatively worthless for any other purpose — has been despoiled of its forests. The Brown Lumber Company has cut off the trees as the locusts in Egypt destroyed the blades of grass in the days of Pharaoh. There is nothing left; and in Gorham, which is described by Starr King as one of the loveliest sections of the White Mountains, and around Berlin Falls, which is in the same region, the destruction of the forests is equivalent to the desolation of the country. It looks as if it had been forsaken and condemned. The condition of the Zealand valley is as striking an instance as can be named of unwise and barbarous lumbering in this region. Mr. Henry and his sons, who have reduced this section to its present desolation, were the first to cut off the marketable timber. Then they started coal kilns, and consumed the remaining trees which could not be cut up and sold for firewood in the towns below. The result was a clean sweep; and later a disastrous fire — not Mr. Henry’s fault, but his misfortune — broke out, and burnt up everything that was left, including the soil. The youngest child of to-day will be gray or in his grave before this section is reafforested. These are well-known instances in the cutting of the forests where destruction has been the result. The evident aim was to wrest the last dollar from the land and leave it barren. It is hardly worth paying the taxes on for many years to come.

The present condition of these forests indicates that the lumbermen are taking yearly about six hundred million feet of rough timber from the White Mountain region and the sources of the Connecticut. Either every valuable tract of timber land has been bought by lumbermen, in order to take from it all its valuable spruce timber, or it is held by the original owners who have signed contracts for the cutting of the timber under certain conditions of stumpage. The hotel landlords have protected the mountain scenery within view of their hotels from molestation by actual purchase, but under present circumstances there is not a stick of timber of marketable size that is likely to escape cutting. The lumbermen have had their eyes upon every valuable and available tract, and are competing as eagerly for the ownership of these sections as operators in Wall Street are watching for opportunities to make a corner in stocks. This is one of the great forest regions which is within easy reach of the market, and, until the duty is taken off from Canadian lumber, a strong temptation is forced upon the great owners of forests in New Hampshire to push their best lumber into the market with all possible speed. No one can blame them for this ; but, under the constant cutting, the forest trees in the State are unable to grow timber fast enough to supply what is taken away. This is the land for the growing of trees, and there is no such thing as the entire denuding of the mountains ; but it is freely admitted by the inhabitants of the region and by the lumbermen that within a dozen years they will be so badly hacked that one will hardly know them as they exist to-day.

Mr. Henry and his sons, who with Mr. George Van Dyke are the largest owners in the forest district, have purchased the very heart of the mountain region, one hundred thousand acres of forest, embracing the finest timber lands, as yet untouched, within the inside range of the mountains, and including at least one slope of all the great peaks from the base of Mount Washington to the open country at North Woodstock, and taking in the entire sweep of the Pemigewasset wilderness. They have it in their power, if they shall cut this forest as they have cut the forest in Zealand valley, to spoil the whole White Mountain region for a period of fifty years, to dry up the east branch of the Pemigewasset, to reduce the Merrimac to the size of a brook in summer, and to bring about a desolation like that which surrounds Jerusalem in the Holy Land. It is not intimated that Mr. Henry and his sons intend to do this. It will take them twenty years to go over this extensive domain and cut off the available timber; but it is what they possess the right to do, though it is believed that they would gladly submit to certain restrictions of stumpage, if the State should adopt a forestry law that applied equally to all the White Mountain lands. Even the lumbermen who have done most to destroy these noble forests have a certain sentiment with regard to them, and are not to be counted as entirely outside of sympathy with the present efforts for their protection and preservation. They have looked at them chiefly on their financial side, and have been compelled to use measures to turn them into money; but they are as ready as any to accept or devise measures which may be agreed upon for their protection. Beyond this tract which Mr. Henry and his sons now own, the Russell Paper Company has bought the forests in the town of Waterville, with the intention of cutting nothing below twelve inches at the butt; extensive lumbering operations are going on in the Albany Intervale along the Swift River; the Saco Valley Lumber Company has purchased the right to cut down to ten inches at the stump in the Mount Washington valley; and there are perhaps from fifty to a hundred firms engaged in lumbering in smaller ways in different parts of the White Mountain region. Wherever a stick of timber larger than twelve inches in diameter at the butt is to be found, it is almost certain to be cut down. It is the same passionate desire to whack at trees that formerly possessed the inhabitants of Nantucket. When nearly all the original trees on the island had been cut off. the selectmen ordered that the few remaining out on the sand-mole protecting the harbor should be allowed to remain, imposing a heavy fine on any one who destroyed them. This so aroused the people as an infringement upon their liberty that they quickly cut them down in the night-time, out of spite to the authorities. The same resistless spirit of destruction seems to possess the people who own the White Mountain forests. They are eager to cut down all the spruce timber to be found, utterly regardless of the fact that, spruce is becoming daily more expensive and more valuable for the building of houses ; that, with the limited supply now left in the country, it is more likely to increase in value than any other product of the forest; and that the careful cutting of the spruce timber, so that the younger trees shall not be destroyed, is the only wise course to be taken. Some of the large forest owners are beginning to see this, and will not allow their woodlands to be cut at a point below the size of twelve inches at the stump.

The situation has so far been described chiefly as it is related to the lumbermen and their interests, and in the light in which they regard it; but every New Englander has a wider interest in this matter. It is a question with some whether the continual and rapid removal of the forest trees does not decrease the rainfall and the supply of water to the streams. Where the trees grow thickly together, as the spruces and the pines do, the soil beneath is porous, like a sponge, and soaks up a great deal of water from the showers and the melting snows, which trickles down into the streams drop by drop when the showers are over and the snows have disappeared. This sponginess of soil is not retained when the sunlight strikes through the foliage and dries it up. The rainfall may be the same, but the power of the soil to hold the water is impaired. Then, again, if the woods are open, the ground freezes early, and when the heavy storms come the water rushes down in torrents over this hard surface into the streams below, and becomes a freshet; but if the forests are left practically in their original condition, the freshet will be greatly lessened, and a continuous water supply from the forests covering the watersheds can be maintained. It is in this light that the cutting of heavy timber in the White Mountain forests ought to be regarded. The Saco has been so much diminished by the cutting of the forests near its source that the ability of the land to hold the water back has been lessened within the memory of the oldest inhabitants. Even the mill owners along the Merrimac have been obliged to build a dam, at a heavy expense, at Lake Port, to hold back the water supply of the Winnepesaukee, in order to be sure of a proper supply for the summer season; and fifty years hence, when Boston goes to this lake for its water supply, the demands upon it will be so extensive that its tributary streams in the White Mountains will be among the most valuable property in the country. It is only when one takes into view these growing interests of the future that the New Hampshire forests, even in the light of our industries and utilities, assume their proper importance.

The outside interests in the White Mountains have been quite too much overlooked by tourists and pleasure-seekers, who fail to recognize that these forests belong to other people, and that the use of them is a privilege which they have enjoyed “ without money and without price.” It is plain that in the future, if these great domains are to be maintained in their substantial integrity and wholeness, there must be some other arrangement for their protection and preservation than now exists, so that the charm of the region as a great national park may not be lost, and the rights of private owners, who have purchased this property in good faith and are entitled to revenues from it, may be preserved. The question is, What shall this protection be? and it is more easily asked than answered. It is rather for the forest owners to reply than for the summer tourists ; at the present time the lumber barons are the only persons who hold the decision in their hands, and the only straight reply is that nothing can be done until every stick of marketable timber has been cut throughout the whole of the White Mountain region. This seems like a sweeping statement, but it is limited by what these land owners may be induced to agree upon as the limitation of their cutting of the trees. Under favorable conditions, the forest reproduces itself in twenty-five years. In the present condition of the ownership, it is for the proprietors to consent to an arrangement by which the trees shall not be cut below a designated size ; this means the retention of trees which have a certain market value as wood, and all the young growth. Much is yet to be learned in this matter. In many cases, the proprietors have yet to be made to understand that it is quite as profitable to take out the ripe timber and leave the younger trees to grow up to maturity as it is to strip the forests clean and let the future take care of itself. The State of New Hampshire is without a single line on its statute book relating to the wooded districts. It is the same as if they did not exist; and although there has been a Forestry Commission for about ten years, neither in its report in 1885, nor its second report in 1891, has there been anything beyond excellent essays on the different conditions of the mountain forests. They have supplied important information, but they have contributed almost nothing to the solution of the question. This has been, not from the lack of ability to deal with the issue, but from a lack of authority. The commission has been without power, and it has not gone beyond its limitations.

The time has come for something more definite and more practical, which shall not only initiate the efficient protection of the forests in New Hampshire, but shall treat them constructively. It has been generally agreed by all parties that the first thing to be done is to secure the appointment of a permanent Forestry Commission. At a meeting of persons interested in forestry, held in Concord, New Hampshire, in December last, it was agreed that this commission should consist of five members, of whom the acting governor should be chairman; and that it should be a body with powers to investigate forest conditions, to purchase lands under advisement, to act in the interest of the State if necessary, and to receive trust funds for the purchase of forest lands in the mountain region and around the head-waters of the streams. It is essential that such a commission should represent the interests of the State in dealing with the whole forest country, — not simply the White Mountain region, but the forests around the headwaters of the Connecticut; and that, while it should not be allowed to commit the State to heavy expenditures, it should have certain discretionary authority to enable it to act with decision and promptness in important matters. This is the starting-point of any adequate protection of the forests. It is necessary that this body of men should be very carefully chosen, with a view to the highest interests of the State, and entirely outside of any political considerations. They must be men who know New Hampshire thoroughly, who have experience in forestry matters, and who have as much regard for the lumbering interests as they have for the national position of New Hampshire, which has done more than anything else to give this problem a unique and special character. No subject has come up in New Hampshire with a larger outreach, or that more requires far-sighted men to handle it properly. This commission must not only take into consideration all the interests concerned, but must devise a modus vivendi by which the forests may be preserved, the rights of the lumbermen protected, and the State prevented from the wasteful investment of the public funds in forest lands where the timber has been partially removed.

The question of a forestry law is beset with many difficulties. How can the State of New Hampshire regulate the cutting of the trees in the great forests, when it does not own a single acre of land ? In Canada, the government refuses to allow the trees to be cut below ten inches in size at the stump ; but the government owns the forest lands, and sells the right to cut at its own will. There is no one to question the constitutionality of its regulation. But in New Hampshire the passage of a forestry law forbidding the cutting of trees below ten inches would interfere with private rights. Thousands of farmers would say that it prevented the clearing of their land, and even the cutting of firewood, and many of the great lumber owners would say that it interfered with their business, and prevented the securing of such a profit from the forests as they had arranged for. No such law could be enacted without compensatory grants to those who are injured by it from the limitations introduced into fresh contracts ; but in a reasonably short time such a regulation would naturally adjust itself, and neither buyers nor sellers of forest timber would receive any injury from its limitations. They would make all their arrangements under the conditions of this regulation. The result would be that the forests would be maintained in nearly their full foliage, that the streams would be but slightly diminished in their supply of water, and that the spongy soil in the dense thickets would still retain its moisture, and allow the water to trickle down the hills as before. This arrangement would not be the seizure of the forest lands by the right of eminent domain ; it would not hinder the lumbermen from their customary work ; it would not greatly injure the mountain scenery ; and it would be a bond of obligation that would preserve these great domains in their integrity, without depriving their owners of the freedom to deal as they pleased with their own property.

The condition is a little peculiar; the position of these forest lands is a unique one. There is a public interest in them throughout the nation which is not to be denied, and is not likely to grow less, and the demand exists that the White Mountain region shall be in some way regarded as public property. No forestry law can be adopted without the yielding of some points on the part of the lumber barons, or without the willingness of the American people to recognize and respect the private ownership of these domains. When looked at in a wider sense, the lumber barons have quite as much at stake in preserving or protecting the forests as they have in cutting them off. In a larger light, the White Mountains with their forests are worth infinitely more for the purposes of a great national park than for the temporary supply of lumber which they may furnish to the market. The railroads have a deep interest in this question. Originally, they were extended to the mountains in order to carry the lumber to the market. Quite incidentally they have become the carriers of the American people to this section as pleasure-seekers ; and in the time to come the winter business of transporting lumber will be less and less, while the summer business of transporting travelers will be more and more. The railroads have a personal interest in preserving the forests in their integrity, and the only way in which this can be done is to introduce a limitation of the cutting of trees, so that the mountain scenery shall not be impaired by the operations of the lumbermen. Some of the paper companies, who are compelled to look out for supplies for their pulp mills for years to come, have been forced to adopt the highest principles of forestry simply as a part of the wise administration of their business. The Russell Paper Company, which owns the mountains that slope into the valley of Waterville, enforces the regulation that no tree shall be cut below twelve inches at the butt, and it proposes to cut the forests so carefully that a yearly supply of lumber shall be furnished to their mills without in any way impairing the integrity or the beauty of the landscape.

If Mr. Henry and his sons, who hold the future treatment of the White Mountain region in their hands, should see their way to adopt a similar regulation with their hundred thousand acres, which they do not expect to cut short of twenty years, they would render the greatest possible aid to the adoption of a wise forestry law that could be applied to all the great forest districts of New Hampshire. If Mr. George Van Dyke, who is regarded as the largest lumber dealer in New Hampshire, should accept a regulation for limiting the size of the lumber, for all the operations which he now controls, it would practically settle the whole matter. There might be some individual owners who would stand out in the interests of personal obstinacy, if any protective measure should be adopted; but if the permanent Forestry Commission were created by the legislature, and the chief lumbermen should rise to the wisest consideration of this question, there is no doubt that the State of New Hampshire would soon be in a position to act intelligently and wisely for the protection of that portion of its domains which is the joy and pride of the whole nation.

This ought not to be a difficult matter to arrange, but no settlement is likely to be made that is unfair to any party. The forest owners are not to be interfered with except on principles of justice ; the people of the State are not to be taxed in order to provide a tramping-ground for the tourists of the country ; the mill owners, who have invested millions of capital with the understanding that the streams shall not be tampered with, are not to be deprived of the supplies of water on which they depend ; and the tourists, who think the White Mountains furnish the most attractive scenery in the United States, should not be unwilling to make a proper compensation for the privileges which they demand. It is a matter of kindly agreement all around, and he will be a wise man and a considerable statesman who shall take these interests in hand and formulate a rule of action that shall be recognized as fair and just to all parties. One who has given this subject more careful thought than perhaps any one else, and who is in a position to deal fairly with all the interests involved, and who has not a penny at stake in the result, suggests the following regulation as perhaps nearer to a settlement of the issue than anything which has yet been devised. In his view, it is for the State to reach a final point of arbitration that shall stop the destruction of the forests, and give them the protection which is essential to their preservation ; and this is to be done by purchasing an agreement with the present owners of the lumber regions that neither they nor their heirs nor their assigns shall ever cut a tree of less size than that determined on. It would be understood, in that case, that the State acquired no title to the land, that the owner reserved to himself all the mature timber that might ever grow upon it, that the State had no other care for the forest than to see that the contract was executed, and that thereby the reservoirs of the streams and the attractiveness of the scenery would be preserved. This could be done at a less sum than the State would expend if it sought the same object in any other way.

It is a practicable plan, and it could be entered upon at once; it does not require the immediate expenditure of large sums of money, and it can be greatly assisted by means of personal contributions. To purchase at once the right of control would require, no doubt, not less than two or three million dollars; but the passage of such a law as we have outlined would arrest immediately nearly all the dangers which now threaten the simultaneous cutting of the forests at a hundred different points in the White Mountains, to their injury. It is not necessary that this sum should be raised immediately, and there is no reason why it should not be assisted by private subscriptions, by which parties who are interested in preserving sections that have great natural beauty might purchase this right and hold it as a lasting bond of protection. The State could grant from year to year certain donations to be used for this purpose, and many of the original owners would be glad to contribute their share to extend over the whole region the protection which such an agreement would insure. Undoubtedly this plan has its defects, but it goes far to make possible a plan of protection that would combine two features essential to its success : it would unite state aid and authority with individual benefactions. The State would have a certain right of control, and could devise a more efficient system of fire wardens than could be obtained by any private arrangement. While the personal ownership of these lands would not change, the owners themselves, under such a provision, would feel that their property was even more secure from fire than it is now, and that their control of the property for business purposes was not in the least impaired. There might be nearly as much lumbering in northern New Hampshire as there is now, but it would he conducted on the principles of wise forestry, and in the end the owners of this property would probably find that their gains were quite equal to what they are now.

These White Mountain forests have the nature of a perpetual estate. They must be preserved, like the old farmhouse, like ancient traditions, and it is possible, by some such arrangement as this, to maintain them in their integrity, and still insure to their owners an excellent return on the investment, without impairing their value to the State or the nation. It is of the greatest importance that interested parties should study them in an unselfish light; not putting forward one consideration to the exclusion of another, but so playing off the one against the other that the subject may be seen in all its varied aspects and regarded as a consistent whole. Much depends upon the attitude of outside people toward the White Mountain region. If the public spirit of men of wealth should be aroused, and large contributions should be made to secure the protection of these forests for all time, it might result in a popular movement that would not only preserve the integrity of these mountain forests, but make them immensely more popular to multitudes of people than they have ever been before. But the time has come when these different measures require immediate action, when some one must espouse them, when the New Hampshire legislature must take the initiatory steps in legislation, when a permanent Forestry Commission must be empowered to mediate between different parties and formulate action on constructive lines. The recent agitation of this subject in the daily press has been timely and judicious. It has not presented an overdrawn picture of the dangers, and it has not failed to point out how the solution of the problem may be reached. It is a far larger subject than it appears to be when first considered, and unites so many and so varied interests that no drastic measures for the protection of the forests can be adopted with success. The New Hampshire people have washed their hands of all responsibility in the matter since Governor Harriman bargained the birthright of the commonwealth for a handful of lintels, but the time has now come when the sturdy farmers of the State, its capitalists, and all the people who possess public spirit ought to unite in methods which shall protect and preserve the forests at the same time that they protect the interests of those who have put their money into them. The more one studies this forestry problem, the more he sees the variety of its interests and realizes the possibility of their fair adjustment. The dangers which threaten the forests can be overcome, and the people of New Hampshire should be the first to remove them.

The forestry question in that State is in some respects not different from what it is in other States, in or out of New England, and the call for a New England Forestry Commission is not unwise or incapable of realization. Maine is as reckless in the destruction of its great forests as New Hampshire is, and Massachusetts is just beginning to realize that certain public reservations are closely connected with the welfare of its different communities. In Vermont the forestry question may be in present abeyance, but with the farms growing up into woodland, and these woodlands constantly acquiring larger value as forests, there is need of forestry laws both for their preservation and for treating them to advantage. New Hampshire enjoys the unique distinction of having a domain which nature has pointed out for a great public park ; not a sportsman’s preserve, such as Mr. Austin Corbin has established in New Hampshire as a private inclosure, but a people’s hunting and tramping ground, where the domain is as free as the air, and where every American feels that the endowments of nature are as permanent and secure as the Constitution. It is this great and noble domain that is to-day in the hands of the spoiler; and though nature has decreed that when a tree is cut down another shall take its place, it is not able to resist when the will and the greed of man have it in their power to add slaughter and fire to the ordinary agencies of destruction. The White Mountain forests constitute one of the finest natural preserves on this continent, and the appeal goes forth to every patriotic American that their beauty and utility and integrity shall be kept inviolate amid all the dangers which threaten their existence.

Julius H. Ward.