Telling the story of 200 years  of White Mountain History

History of Scenic Areas

   History of  Scenic Areas in the White Mountain                                      National Forest                                                             by David Govatski

Scenic Areas are places of outstanding or unique beauty that require special management to preserve their qualities. This type area will be maintained as nearly as possible in an undisturbed condition.” Secretary of Agriculture, Rules and Regulations,  1960.


Few people know much about the designation of the formally established scenic areas on the White Mountain National Forest (WMNF). Even fewer can identify all ten designated scenic areas even though they may have visited them or saw the boundaries marked on trail maps. The purpose of this article is to tell the fascinating story of how designated scenic areas came to be and to encourage readers to visit and appreciate these special areas.  (Links to a Photo Album and Information on Visiting the Scenic Areas are at the bottom of this page.)

Scenery in the Era of Tourism, Railroads and Logging: 1880-1911 

Scenery played an important role in the early tourist history of the White Mountains. Artists and vacationers came in large numbers to enjoy the majestic views, clear streams and green forests starting in the 1820’s.  Many more came as the railroads reached the mountains, starting in the 1850s. Painters such as Thomas Cole and Albert Bierstadt, along with other members of what came to be called the White Mountain School of Art, played an important role in demonstrating the beauty of these mountains. Dozens of books and magazine articles brought the rugged mountain scenery to the attention of readers all over the country. (For additional information on the importance of the graphic arts in the development of White Mountain tourism, see our website White Mountain Prints and Graphics.)

The coming of the railroads brought more than tourists and artists. It brought the lumber barons who had previously skipped the White Mountain forests because of their inaccessibility. Most White Mountain rivers were unsuitable for driving logs but the technological advances of the steam engine made railroad logging practical. The huge demand for lumber for a growing America attracted investment and large-scale removal of the lush mountainsides covered with spruce forests.  

New Hampshire led the nation in spruce lumber production for the decade of 1890-1900 with production peaking in 1907. The level of harvesting was both unsustainable and a cause of concern to many. The paper mills needed a steady and reliable supply of wood.  Hotel owners and tourists bemoaned the loss of scenic forest cover. Business owners who relied upon waterpower complained that water flow became more erratic as widespread deforestation caused fluctuations in flow. Forest fires contributed to the deforestation. In 1903 alone, fire burned 85,000 acres or 10% of the White Mountain region.  

The extensive devastation of White Mountain and Southern Appalachian forests from over-harvesting and forest fires led to the development of the forest conservation movement starting in the 1890s. A coalition of business owners, conservation organizations, hotel owners, citizens and politicians joined together to call for protecting the White Mountains and Southern Appalachians. This coalition succeeded, after many failed attempts, to pass Federal legislation known as the Weeks Act in 1911.  

The Weeks Act was named for Congressman John W. Weeks of Massachusetts who served as the floor manager of the bill to obtain passage.  Congressman Weeks had a White Mountain connection having been born in Lancaster, NH in 1860 and growing up on a farm. Weeks originally tried to use scenery preservation as a reason to justify the protection of these mountains. However, Speaker of the House Joseph Cannon said “Not One Cent for Scenery” causing Weeks to go back to the drawing board. Weeks came up with a better reason that also met the constitutional objections that some had expressed. He and his associates decided that preservation of rivers was a valid federal concern. 

The wording in the preamble describes the Weeks Act as “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 was certainly an interesting choice of words but it met the intent of the coalition supporting the preservation of the mountain forests and scenery. The result today is that we have 41 National Forests in 24 eastern states that protect 20 million acres of forest.  

The Era of Forest Protection: 1911-1961 

In 1911, the White Mountains looked far different then they do today. Many of the hillsides had been cut bare and burned over. Very little of the virgin forest remained. The first land acquired for what was then known as the White Mountain Forest Reserve was the Pike Tract in Benton, NH acquired on January 2, 1914.  A few weeks later a  large swath of land on the Northern Presidential Range and the Wild River region was added. By 1918, enough land had been acquired so that President Woodrow Wilson officially designated the White Mountain Forest Reserve a national forest (WMNF).  

The early foresters recognized the importance of acquiring not just the barren “lands that no one wanted”  but scenic areas in the mountains that had not been cutover and had a good forest cover. 

Jack Godden of the WMNF, writing in 1965, quoted Forester William Logan Hall’s 1919 letter to the Chief of the U. S. Forest Service describing his efforts to acquire land.. “Acting under your instructions, I have endeavored to work out a practical plan for retaining the original forest growth on the crucial areas of privately owned land in the White Mountain Purchase Unit. On the remaining private lands in the White Mountain Purchase Area, in view of the probability of their subsequent acquisition by the Federal Government, in view of the essential nature of their forest as watershed cover, and in view of their recreational importance, a determined effort should be made to retain the original forest growth on areas of considerable size.” What Hall was describing was his strategy to acquire lands that retained a forest cover. 

In the 1920’s informal agreements were made by government foresters to prevent logging or road building on several especially scenic areas that had been acquired for the WMNF. These informal agreements worked for four decades until official designations and formal management plans were made starting in 1961.  

Early Efforts to Conserve Areas of Scenic Beauty 

The area that is now the WMNF has a long history of citizens and conservation organizations engaged in land protection. These efforts to protect the mountain slopes started in the 1890’s and eventually resulted in passage of the Weeks Act. Two examples directly related to future scenic areas are noteworthy.  

Randolph 1895 Case Study: The Boston and Maine Railroad completed the railroad between Whitefield and Gorham in 1892. Soon the trains that brought tourists in were hauling logs out as logging companies moved in and started cutting off the rich spruce forests of the Northern Peaks. The residents of Randolph, a major center for hiking, were concerned. The residents worried as the clear cutting extended   up the steep slopes. Many of their favorite trails became impassable due to logging slash.  

The Appalachian Mountain Club acted in 1895 to save a small patch of primeval forest next to several popular waterfalls along Snyder Brook. The club purchased a strip of land from Laban Watson that was 600 feet wide and a little over a half mile long. The price was $400 for 36 acres of old growth hemlock, spruce and hardwoods. (The AMC donated the land to the WMNF in 1937.) Today, as you walk toward Snyder Brook, the change from regenerating hardwood forest to old growth hemlock and spruce is abrupt and dramatic. These ancient trees tower up to 90 feet in height and with a measured age of 370 years give us a picture of what much of this area probably looked like before the extensive cutting began.  

Waterville Valley 1928 Case Study: Another noteworthy area preserved was in the Greeley Ponds area near Waterville Valley. This area retained its old growth forest and was about to be accessed by a logging railroad when public pressure, under the leadership of Philip Ayres and Allen Chamberlain convinced the U. S. Forest Service to acquire it.  . Hurricanes in 1938 and 1950 damaged some of the old growth forest but the area around the ponds retains its wild appearance and many old trees remain.  (See “What Did It Cost to Build a Logging Railroad” for more information on these preservation efforts.) 

Informal Agreements Lead to Formal Management Plans and Designation 

The informal agreements to protect outstanding scenic beauty and old growth forests were formalized in 1960.  The “Multiple Use–Sustained Yield Act” required the Forest Service to develop plans that considered every National Forest resource including “wood, water, wildlife, forage and recreation”.  This meant that land and resources would be managed to ensure a continuing supply of forest products and other services, in perpetuity, for “the greatest good to the greatest number of people”.  Recreation was considered the dominant use in those special, scenic areas that had been identified and protected by the early foresters.  

When were the ten scenic areas formally established?

The formal announcement of the first six designated Scenic Areas occurred during the celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the Weeks Act, On Oct.6, 1961.  Forest Service Chief Richard McArdle made the announcement during the celebrations at the Crawford House Hotel, within sight of one of the areas he was designating, the Gibbs Brook Scenic Area.  

Scenic Areas continued to be added to the original six.  The first ones, established in October,1961 by Regional Forester Hamilton K. Pyles, included:
Gibbs Brook: 900 acres of old growth forest along the Crawford Path.

Pinkham Notch: 5,600 acres including Tuckerman and Huntington Ravines.

Snyder Brook: 36 Acres of old growth hemlock, spruce and maple.

Sawyer Ponds: 1,130 acres with two ponds nestled under Mount Tremont.

Lafayette Brook: 990 acres along the brook to the summit of Mount Lafayette.

Rocky Gorge: 70 acres including the gorge and small pond along the Swift River. 

Two more areas were designated Scenic Areas on October 22, 1964 by Regional Forester Richard Droege:

Greeley Ponds: 810 acres of old growth forest near Waterville Valley.

Nancy Brook: 460 acres of old growth spruce forest and two remote ponds. 

Two more were designated   on January 10, 1969 by the Regional Forester

Lincoln Woods: Scenic Area, 18,500 acres of remote forest near Shoal and Ethan Ponds.

Mount Chocorua: 6,100 acres around the summit of Mount Chocorua.

         Promotional Brochure Published by the WNMF

Why are there only nine today?  The Nancy Brook Scenic Area became the Nancy Brook Research Natural Area (RNA) in 2005.The protection level for an RNA is higher than for a Scenic Area, although the management differences are subtle. 

What happened to the Northern Peaks Scenic Area? There was a proposed 11th Scenic Area called the Northern Peaks Scenic Area .The boundaries covered the northern and western slopes of Mount Madison, Adams, Jefferson, Washington, Monroe and Eisenhower (then called Mount Pleasant).  Residents of Randolph objecting to a timber sale near Bowman responded by lobbying for a new scenic area to prevent timber harvesting on the northern peaks. The Forest Service rejected the proposed Northern Peaks Scenic Area in 1969 on the grounds that existing protection was adequate. The proposed timber sale was cancelled. 

What is the largest Scenic Area today? The largest had been the Lincoln Woods, at 18,500 acres. But the creation of the 45,000 acre Pemigewasset Wilderness by Congress in 1984 reduced the size of Lincoln Woods Scenic Area to 1,200 acres on the western slopes of Mount Willey. Today the Mount Chocorua Scenic Area at 6,100 acres is the largest.  

Who designates Scenic Areas, RNA’s and Wilderness? The Eastern Regional Forester in Milwaukee, Wisconsin has the authority to designate Scenic Areas and Research Natural Areas. Only Congress can designate Wilderness.  

Why was Mount Chocorua not included in the Sandwich Range Wilderness? I found a reference by Charles Burnham of the AMC in Appalachia (Winter 1985 page 158) that alludes to an agreement to make this area a Scenic Area. I infer that Wilderness designation for this iconic peak would have been controversial. Man-made overnight trail shelters, including the historic Jim Liberty Cabin and Camp Penacook would have had to be removed. Mount Chocorua has a high density of trails and Wilderness Act implementation could clearly call for a reduced trail density, a reduced level of trail maintenance, and a reduced level of use by implementing a permit system.  

Are motorized vehicles allowed in Scenic Areas? The 2005 WMNF Plan and specific scenic area management plans address motorized use. The Pinkham Notch Scenic Area allows for administrative use of special snow tractors for Snow Rangers in Tuckerman and Huntington Ravines. Route 16 bisects the Pinkham Notch Scenic Area and there is also a public road adjacent to the Rocky Gorge Scenic Area.  

What is the White Mountain Forest Plan Management Area for Scenic Areas? The White Mountain Forest Plan describes management areas as “the grouping of land areas allocated to similar management goals.” All of the scenic areas fall under Management Area 8.5 (MA 8.5). Even though each scenic area has a specific management plan the overall purpose is to manage these areas for their outstanding natural beauty. 

Details on Each of the Scenic Areas and How to Visit 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not represent those of the US Forest Service.

The author thanks Terry Fifield, Forest Archaeologist; Stacy Lemieux, Forest Planner; and Norma Sorgman, Forest Geographic Information Specialist for their assistance in answering questions about WMNF Scenic Areas.

David Govatski is a member of WhiteMountainHistory.org and the Forest History Society. He retired from the U. S. Forest Service and maintains a strong interest in the White Mountains. David has prepared a companion slide program that describes the scenic area program and showcases the spectacular beauty of each area and how it was preserved.  Many of these photos are included in the Photo Album

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