One Hundred Years for The NH Division of Forests and Lands

September 26, 2009

Last week the Forest Society received an inquiry from a concerned resident of New Hampshire who’d been touring coastal Maine, New Brunswick and the Canadian Maritime Provinces regarding sick trees: “It seemed evident that conifers are in deep trouble, lots dead and more on the edge What is being done to keep blight from coming into New Hampshire where there are trees all around us, or is there anything that can be done?” When it comes to monitoring and protecting the State’s forest health, the answers reside at the State Agency which has been charged with overseeing  protection of forest resources including conservation, education, management and enforcement for a century: The NH Division of Forests and Lands.

In 1909, the fledgling State Forestry Department appointed its first State Forester, Edgar Hirst. The next year, a State forest nursery was established to propagate seedlings for re-planting. In 1911, the Weeks Act passed by the US Congress began to establish federal forest reserves. Today, the entire eastern National Forest system including the 800,000 acre White Mountain National Forest has its origins to that seminal legislation.

By the 1920s the State’s White Mountains had begun to re-grow its mantle of forest, recovering from the devastation of rolling clear-cut logging commonly practiced in the latter half of the nineteenth century. But new challenges to the State’s forest health were posed by a devastating series of natural disasters to strike the State: insect pests, wind, rain, fires and ice.

The “Great Hurricane” of September 1938 devastated hundreds of thousands of acres across New England. 1.5 billion board-feet of timber was blown down and 500 million board feet were recovered and sawn into lumber through various statewide white pine salvage operations. In 1941, the 4-day Marlow-Stoddard fire burned 24,000 acres. That fire began when sparks landed in sawdust piles at a white pine salvage operation in Marlow and was the largest fire to feed on the debris of the ’38 hurricane. In 1942 with men fighting overseas, an all-woman sawmill was established on Turkey Pond in Concord to continue the hurricane white pine salvage operations.

The autumn of 1947 saw a record drought worsen over much of New England. By October a devastating series of fires had burned over Rochester, Farmington and across central Maine from Fryeburg to coastal counties. Bar Harbor Maine burned to the ground.

In Newbury, a lightning strike at Lake Solitude kindled a conflagration which burned eight miles south along Sunapee Ridge coming to within one mile of the village of Goshen. In 1949 the interstate Northeastern Forest Fire Protection Commission was established to coordinate wildfire detection and suppression efforts region-wide. The last large forest fires occurred within days of one another in 1953. The Grantham Mountain forest fire started on June 25th, 1953 and burned 1,570 acres. The Mt. Shaw fire started on June 23rd, 1953 and burned 1,554 acres. Today, there are 500 small brush fires reported annually yet the average size is less than half an acre

The NH Division of Forests and Lands oversees the statewide system of fire towers located on mountaintops. In 1980, 22 State Fire Towers remained in operation in New Hampshire. Today there are 15 remaining manned towers. The State supplements fire tower staff with aerial surveillance flights by fixed-wing aircraft deployed by request. Aircraft investigate reports of smoke in the rugged interior regions of the White Mountains where many historical fire towers have been decommissioned. Manned fire towers remain the State’s first line of defense to pinpoint smoke locations, hasten reporting of potential fires, decrease local response times and ultimately reduce public costs for fire suppression. In addition to municipal forest fire wardens and statewide forest fire rangers, regional forest rangers periodically inspect active timber harvest operations to ensure compliance with the State’s environmental and forestry laws.

In 1961, the State Forestry Department became the NH Division of Forests and Lands. In 2009, the NHDFL now owns 167,000 acres of State Forests. Additionally, the Division hosts the State Lands Management Team which oversees active forest and wildlife habitat management activities on State Forests, State Parks, NH Fish and Game Wildlife Management Areas and Army Corps flood control areas totaling 223,000 acres.

Among notable State Forests are the Caroline A. Fox Research and Demonstration Forest in Hillsborough established in 1933, the Urban Forestry Center in Portsmouth donated by John Ellwyn Stone in 1976 and Sheiling Forest in Peterborough donated by Elizabeth Yates McGreal in 1980. State Research Forester, Henry Baldwin lived at Fox State Forest and is still considered among the most influential leaders in twentieth century progressive forestry.

Insect pests and disease have always posed a threat to the economic value of our State’s timber. The State quarantined black currant and gooseberry bushes to control white pine blister rust beginning in 1917. A report listed 50% of all white pine, our most economically-valuable tree by annual harvest volume, was infected in 1922. From 1917 to 1972, blister rust control was the main focus of the “Forest Insect and Disease” office. 

Chestnut blight was first seen in New York in 1908 and by the 1950’s, all mature chestnuts in NH were infected or dead. Dutch elm disease was first arrived in North America in 1930 and by 1970 most NH elms were infected. The exotic balsam woolly adelgid insect, first seen in NH around 1950, has quietly killed more trees in NH in the past 20 years than any other pest. 

Today, new invasive, exotic insects threaten our State’s forest health. In 2000, the hemlock woolly adelgid insect was first detected in Portsmouth. In 2008, the elongate hemlock scale was first detected in Milford. Asian longhorned beetle and emerald ash borer have not yet arrived, but are nearby. Education and voluntary quarantines against moving infested firewood are the first line of defense. According to Kyle Lombard, the Forest Health Program Coordinator, the list of exotic pests introduced to NH forests is growing. Potential threats will only be minimized by ongoing monitoring programs to facilitate early detection and eradication efforts should the foreign insects enter NH.

Nature manages forests with a sledgehammer. The January 1998 ice storm affected approximately 700,000 acres across New Hampshire. The July 2008 tornado swept from Epsom to the Ossipees, flattening a swath of 5,000 acres and impacting 8,400 acres in a matter of minutes. This past December 2008, another ice storm devastated communities in the Monadnock Region.

Acting Director, Brad Simpkins says: “Our first 100 years has been characterized by challenges, perseverance, collaboration and accomplishment. The next century will undoubtedly be filled with much the same… The division’s two greatest strengths have always been its dedicated staff and strong partnerships, strengths that will ensure the division’s strong leadership for another century in protecting and promoting the values provided by our State’s magnificent forests”

Next week, the Division will establish a “Centennial Plantation” of white pines supplied by the State Forest Nursery in an area affected by the July 2008 tornado. On Saturday, October 3 from 9 am to 3 pm the NH Division of Forests and Lands will host a Centennial Celebration Field Day at the Pine River State Forest in Effingham. The event will include tree planting, exhibits, hikes, and informational programs about native tree and plant identification, pine barrens wildlife, fire ecology, forest insects and diseases as the Division celebrates one hundred years of forest stewardship. For more information visit or call 603-271-2214.

Naturalist Dave Anderson is director of education for the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests. His column appears every other week in the New Hampshire Sunday News. He may be reached at or through the Forest Society's Web site: