CONCORD, N.H. — New Hampshire’s most iconic attraction had been decimated by forest fires and logging when President Woodrow Wilson established it as a national forest a century ago.
Now, the White Mountain National Forest stretches over 800,000 acres in the northern part of the state and part of Maine.
It attracts millions of visitors each year and has become part of the state’s economic engine, contributing to the nearly $9 billion outdoor recreation industry that supports almost 80,000 jobs. Beyond that, it is a source of pride among New Englanders.
“There’s a reason why it’s called ‘the people’s forest’, it belongs to us all,” said Cynthia Robinson, director of the Museum of the White Mountains.
The U.S. Forest Service is kicking off the centennial celebration with an exhibition Wednesday that illustrates the forest’s history through art, artifacts and interactive experiences. Visitors will be immersed in sounds from different parts of the forest and will also be able to comment on what they envision the next 100 years to be for the federally protected land. The exhibit will run through mid-September.
“I hope people who come to the exhibit learn things about the forest they had no idea existed,” Robinson said. “The goal is to get people excited enough to participate and show good stewardship.”
Good stewardship was mostly a dream more than 100 years ago in the forest. Mostly in private hands, 10 percent of the region had burned in a series of forest fires, according to historian David Govatski. Hillsides were denuded by logging and streams and creeks had become polluted. It was those dirty waterways that prompted the Weeks Act of 1911, which led to the creation of national forests in the eastern U.S.
When the forest service took charge of preservation efforts in the early 20th century, its original intent was to regrow those forests and restore polluted streams. Govatski, a retired U.S. Forest Service worker, said much has been done to return the forest to its natural state — though it remains a work in progress.
“It took a long time to get to where the forest is now, but restoring wildlife and fisheries is still a continued effort to this day,” Govatski said. “My impression is that they want to take a look back and reflect on its successes, but also look forward on how we’re going to preserve these resources for future generations.”
The forest service hopes the events planned this summer renew the call to action from over a century ago that set the environmental legislation in motion.
“Looking at the history of it, it’s an incredible conservation success story,” said Evan Burks, public affairs officer for the White Mountain National Forest. “We have this diverse forested landscape that provides clean water and unsurpassed recreation activities, and it’s become this symbol for not just New Hampshire, but all of New England.”