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By Bruce Henderson, The Charlotte Observer
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A plaque unveiled Friday on the Blue Ridge Parkway salutes North Carolina’s cornerstone role in one of the nation’s most ambitious conservation feats.
One century ago this year, the federal government bought 8,100 acres of timberland near Marion. It was the first of many acquisitions that, over time, created national forests that now total 19.7 million acres.
The first transaction paid Burke McDowell Lumber Co. a little over $7 an acre for its land. It followed approval by Congress of the Weeks Act, which allowed federal money to be used to buy forests for watershed protection.
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Then as now, the act’s passage followed years of debate over the role of government.
By 1911, national forest reserves already had been created among the expansive public lands in the West. But conservative politicians railed against further expanding government holdings in the East.
A literal cascade of events turned the tide. Violent floods poured out of heavily logged eastern mountains in 1907. Civic leaders wanted to avoid more floods, backing the idea of government lands where forests could be restored and waterways protected. Scientific management of forests took root.
Congress finally passed the Weeks Act a year after wildfires claimed nearly 4 million acres of timber in the northern Rockies. The act appropriated $9 million to buy 6 million acres in the East and promote fire management.
Suspicions of the government remained in some corners. Only a few generations removed from post-Civil War Reconstruction, some mountaineers envisioned another federal occupation.
“It stoked old flames by saying, here’s the federal government wanting to move in and impose its will,” said James Lewis, historian with the Forest History Society in Durham.
Early purchases targeted the Southern Appalachian Mountains, the source of many headwater streams across the East and especially in North Carolina. By the end of 1912, 1.4 million acres had been identified for acquisition in the Carolinas, Tennessee, Georgia and Virginia.
The government initially bought most of its land from timber companies or land investors eager to sell cut-over land, although nearly a third of the acreage was old-growth forest. The largest tract from a single owner was the 86,700 acres bought for $433,500 from the Biltmore Estate in 1914. It became the core of North Carolina’s Pisgah National Forest.
More than 1.2 million acres of national forests now cover parts of the state. The initial 8,100-acre tract is part of the Pisgah forest.