Essay | The time has come for a White Mountain National Park
By George Wuerthner
Editor’s note: Too often, and unjustly, the mountain ranges of the East are despised for their majesty compared to the ranges of the West. But as George Wuerthner makes clear in the following essay, New Hampshire’s White Mountains are not only an amazing expanse of wilderness-quality forests, streams, and lakes, but also worthy of being embraced by the system of National parks.
The White Mountain National Forest is the largest federally owned territory in the Northeast. The WMNF is located in New Hampshire and Maine and covers 800,000 acres, including 135,000 acres as a designated wilderness area.
A proposal to create an 800,000-acre White Mountain National Park and Preserve with a wilderness designation overlay for all roadless land is enjoying growing support in the region. RESTORE the northern woods and his New National Parks Campaign is one of the supporters of the park proposal.
A park and reserve concept similar to the existing situation in many national parks in Alaska is likely to have the greatest public support. The segment of the park is closed to hunting and trapping. At the same time, the reserve area remains available for these activities, as well as snowmobiling and downhill skiing at existing resorts on Forest Service land.
The creation of a national park unit in the region will place the mountains under a single cohesive management unit that prioritizes the maintenance of ecological integrity and the protection of natural systems. The NPS also has a better history of interpreting and dealing with human impacts.
The WMNF continues to approve ongoing logging, clearcutting, and other destructive practices, including in roadless areas, permitted by the National Forest Management. The WMNF also approved a major power line corridor (the North Col proposal was cancelled) through the forest roadless lands that would have brought hydroelectricity from Quebec to the area. And a proposal to build a large resort on private property atop Mount Washington meets with no opposition from the agency.
Upper Mount Washington and Biological Diversity
The White Mountains are among the tallest peaks in the eastern United States, topped by 6,288-foot Mountain Washington, reputed to have the worst weather of any weather station in the United States. Strong winds from 234mph recorded in 1934 were documented atop this peak. In addition to Mount Washington, there are 47 mountains over 4,000 feet within the boundaries of the proposed park.
These mountains were also heavily glaciated during the last Ice Age and feature numerous U-shaped valleys, cirques and other examples of glacial landscape. One of the most famous is Tuckerman’s Ravine, which attracts skiers and snowboarders due to its challenging steep runs and deep snow.
The White Mountains also have some of the largest alpine tundra east of the Mississippi, the many arctic and boreal species reaching their southern limits. A minimum of 110 alpine plants grow above the treeline in the White Mountains, seven are considered valid alpine species, and four are found nowhere else on Earth.
Below the alpine are forests of red spruce, black spruce, and balsam fir, and lower; mixed hardwood forests grow with sugar maple, white pine, paper birch, yellow birch, and other northern hardwood species.
The forests and alpine areas of the White Mountains are home to 237 bird species and are named one of the 500 most important bird areas in the United States by the American Bird Conservancy.
The area’s rivers and ponds are also a stronghold for native brook trout. Brook trout are the only native trout in the East and remain intact in only 5% of their historic range. Some of the highest quality brook trout habitat in the eastern United States remains in the White Mountains.
White Mountain National Park
White Mountain National Forest was created by the Weeks Act of 1911, one of the first plots of land acquired under the law. The act directed Congress to purchase private woodlots to protect forests, watersheds, and wildlife. Unlike the western United States, where the public domain allowed the creation of national forests, parks and wildlife refuges, almost all public land in the eastern United States was purchased, including landscapes landmarks such as the Everglades, Acadia and Great Smoky. Mountain National Parks.
In many cases, land acquired for the White Mountain National Forest had already been logged. But with a generous dose of time, much of this land has been passively reforested. With land restoration, many wildlife species that were once rare or extirpated from the region, including moose, lynx, marten, black bear and others, have recovered from the low points of the early century.
The White Mountains qualify for national park status. The area is within a day’s drive of 70 million people and receives 6 million visitors a year, making it one of the most heavily used public land units in the northeast. National parks are better prepared to manage visitors than most national forest units.
The White Mountains would fill a gap in the bioregional representation of our parks system by protecting the largest federally managed hardwood upland ecosystem in the North. This would only be the second entire National Park in the Northeast (there are other NPS units like National Seashore, Monument, Historic Sites, and Appalachian National Scenic Trail).
Since most of the land in the White Mountains region is already federally owned, transferring the area to the jurisdiction of the National Park Service would only require an act of Congress. More than 20 existing national parks and reserves have been created by incorporating lands from the national forest system, including Glacier (MT), Grand Teton (WYOMING), Olympic (WASHINGTON), Bryce’s Canyon (UTAH), Glacier Bay (AK), Big pool (LV), kings canyon (CALIFORNIA), North Cascades (WA), and Travelers (MN).
Why a national park?
State forests are under the administration of the Department of Agriculture. They are much more oriented towards industrial and resource development, logging, oil and gas leasing, mining, and cattle grazing.
The WMNF provides only about 1 percent of the regional timber supply because there is extensive private timber land in the region, which is another justification for a national park. There are plenty of private acres for logging, but few acres under any protection.
The National Park Service falls under the Department of the Interior and parks are primarily managed for wildlife protection, education and recreation.
National parks legislation could provide a mechanism to designate additional wilderness areas. Currently, there are six wilderness areas on the WMNF: Great Gulf (5,522 acres), Presidential Range-Dry River (29,000 acres), Pemigewasset (45,000 acres), Sandwich Range (35,000 acres), Caribou-Speckled Mountain (14,000 acres) and Wild River (23,700 acres).
However, 27 roadless lands listed on the WMNF could be designated as wilderness under any national park legislation. Some of the largest road-free areas include Kilkenny (37,096 acres), Pemigewasset (65,781 acres), Sandwich Range (21,400 acres) and Wild River (71,387 acres), among others.
In the age of climate change, maintaining forests and allowing them to reach “old growth” status would store significant amounts of carbon. Since trees contain about 50% carbon, the increase in standing forests is directly correlated to the increase in bound or sequestered carbon.
Since hunting and trapping would be prohibited in a White Mountain National Park, this would be the best place to restore native predators like wolves, cougars, and wolverines.
The WMNF favors intensive development such as power lines, wind generation, ski resort development, logging and other commercial uses at the expense of wild lands in the region.
The National Park Service has a different charter to protect and preserve ecological integrity. The NPS budget is directed toward wildlife and habitat protection, historic preservation, public education, and appropriate recreation.
It is likely that there will initially be some opposition to any park proposal, usually from commercial interests such as logging, which would be discontinued under a national park rubric. However, over time most citizens came to favor federal park status. An example is the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument in Maine which is under the management of the NPS. Establishing the monument was a much heavier lift as there were no significant federal landholdings like in the WMNF. Nevertheless, once the park unit was established, public support for the monument grew.
The time has come to transfer the WMNF to the National Park Service.