How the Weeks Act Changed the Country (Even California)


A pop quiz: what do the Six Rivers, Tahoe, and Toiyabe, Cleveland, San Bernardino, and Angeles National Forests have in common? If you said they were all located in California, give yourself a gold star. But they share something else in common--they are the strange recipients of funding sanctioned through the Weeks Act, which President William Howard Taft signed into law on March 1, 1911. This money source is odd because the act originally established the federal government's authority to purchase private property in the eastern portion of the United States so that it might create badly needed national forests there. That western forests also benefited only underscores the profound impact the Weeks Act has had on the nation for the past one hundred years.

Yet although the initiative is one the most significant pieces of environmental legislation in modern American history, few Americans have ever heard of it. The Act's centennial next week, then, gives us a golden opportunity to appreciate its transformative power on the land and in our lives. The legislation's complex history, and the remarkable energy of its proponents, may also serve as guides for how this generation might respond to the challenges we must address as the planet warms and the climate changes.

The Weeks Act's most obvious influence is reflected in the purchase of millions of acres of national forests in 26 eastern states. (Second quiz: name the six states east of the Mississippi River that do not contain national forests. The answer is below). Its economic impact in terms of forestry has been immeasurable; and the recreational dollars it has generated are even more substantial. For the millions of visitors who annually hunt, fish, hike, camp, and just plain enjoy themselves on these treasured public lands in the Great Lakes, along the Ohio River Valley, and up and down the Appalachians; as well as those who frolic in the Sierra or in the southern California ranges, including the Santa Ana, San Bernardino and San Gabriels, this legislative initiative has been of inestimable value.

It has been of unparalleled political significance, too. For the first time, the federal government gained the authority to purchase private land in the eastern United States to create new national forests, the first of which was North Carolina's Pisgah National Forest in 1916. But it could only do so within the context of cooperative relations between Washington and the various states. The bill's long title makes this clear: "AN ACT to enable any State to cooperate with any other State or States, or with the United States, for the protection of the watersheds of navigable streams, and to appoint a commission for the acquisition of lands for the purpose of conserving the navigability of navigable rivers." This insistence on collaboration--for watershed and fire protection, especially--is one of the Weeks Act's groundbreaking qualities.

Another key feature is embodied in the text's mysterious phrase that twists the tongue: "the navigability of navigable waters." In popular culture this term signified that a stream was navigable if it could float a small log, but in this specific case the concept identified which lands Washington could purchase and for what purposes. The Act targeted high-country watersheds of rivers crossing state boundaries, and in doing so cleverly linked watershed protection to the "Commerce Clause" of the U. S. Constitution, which had granted the federal government the responsibility to regulate interstate commerce; through the Weeks Act this regulatory power was extended to interstate streamflow.

John Wingate Weeks | Photo via Library of Congress
Those who pushed for the Weeks Act, named for its canny congressional floor manager, John W. Weeks (R-MA), could not know that their initiative would have such far-reaching consequences. All they had wanted was some form of federal protection for Appalachian Mountains. Southern conservationists, for instance, were deeply worried that heavy logging in was destroying the Great Smokys' verdant beauty, ruining the soils, and intensifying flood damage along the Monongahela River. New England activists shared their concerns about the impact of deforestation on rampaging floods on the Merrimack and Connecticut rivers and damaging fires in the White Mountains. Independently, they lobbied for congressional legislation to create national forests, such as already existed throughout the American west.

Because the federal government owned almost no land in the east--which was a sharp contrast to its ownership pattern in the west--the only way it could manage forests there was if it bought them. Whether it had the constitutional right to buy private property was hotly debated in Congress, an argument that western politicians repeatedly raised. They were used to attacking the national forests in their region, forever challenging the Forest Service's ability to regulate the public domain, and so saw no reason to strengthen the agency's land inventory, budgetary allocation, or legal authority. Their hostility was one reason why the Weeks Act, an early version of which had been introduced in 1900, took so long to become law.

What finally broke the legal logjam that westerners' stout objections had created was the idea of "the navigability of navigable waters." In granting the federal government authority over interstate waters the bill also gave it the right to buy the land necessary to protect those waters. That language apparently mollified some of the California delegation: its two senators, Frank Flint and George Perkins voted aye; but only two of its eight House members--including its sole Los Angeles representative, James McLachlan of Pasadena--voted in support.

These high-level legislative maneuverings would not have mattered had there not been a broad and diverse coalition of local interests demanding the Weeks Act's passage. In the south, the Appalachian National Forest Association (founded in 1899) led the way. In the north the two key northern proponents were the Appalachian Mountain Club (1876) and the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests (1901). Without their indefatigable coalition building, and persistent lobbying in public meetings, congressional hearings, and through the media, we would not have 52 eastern national forests; neither could we enjoy those acres closer to home, here in Southern California and across the west. Without these lands, our watersheds would be less green, potable water less pure, scenic vistas less stunning, and economic life less vibrant.

The Weeks Act has another lesson to impart. As they fought to secure the passage of the initiative, its bipartisan advocates forged long-lasting public-private partnerships that depended on an energetic and engaged citizenry. These coalitions were able therefore to respond creatively and successfully to what they perceived to be the environmental challenge of their lifetime. Surely that holds true today as we attempt to build a more sustainable society amid the powerful forces that climate change has unleashed.

Pop Quiz #2 Answers

  • Massachusetts
  • Rhode Island
  • Connecticut
  • New Jersey
  • Delaware
  • Maryland

We might also take a lesson from these proponents' embrace of the charge that Teddy Roosevelt laid down. In 1910, while stumping for the Weeks Act at the Southern Conservation Congress meeting, he thundered: "I ask you to profit from the mistakes made elsewhere...and so handle [natural resources] that you leave your land as a heritage to your children, increased and not impaired in permanent value."

His remains a clarion call and shrewd advice.

Char Miller is the Director and W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College, and editor of the just-published "Cities and Nature in the American West." He comments every Wednesday at 2 p.m. on environmental issues.

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