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Dan Weeks: To chart state’s energy future, learn from our conservative past



For the Monitor
Sunday, October 14, 2018

Last weekend, my family joined hundreds of thousands of others in celebrating New Hampshire’s natural splendor in the White Mountain National Forest. As we took in the fall foliage from the Cog Railway on Mount Washington and hiked along the Pemigewasset River, it was impossible to imagine that just a century ago, these same landscapes were anything but natural or splendid.

Extensive documentary evidence from the turn of the 20th century reveals that unregulated clear-cutting by private logging outfits had wiped out most of New Hampshire’s virgin forests and left the iconic mountainsides bare. Rivers and streams were choked with sawdust and silt, robbing downstream factories of vital waterpower. Eroding hillsides were no match for the rains, which produced damaging floods. A series of deadly forest fires claimed some 10 percent of the present-day White Mountain National Forest, heaping ash on nearby towns. The area we so prize today was termed “the lands nobody wanted.” New Hampshire’s economy and way of life were at risk.

In response, a motley coalition of environmentalists, businessmen, and elected officials – led by Republicans – set out to achieve a quintessentially conservative end: preserving New Hampshire’s most precious natural resources for future generations. Conservationists at the Appalachian Mountain Club and N.H. Forest Society were joined by timber associations and magazines seeking government stabilization of a volatile lumber market; hotel owners and their guests dismayed at the sight of bare and blackened slopes; Manchester industrialists in need of a stable source of energy to power their factories and keep their employees at work. Their combined efforts paid off in 1911 with passage of the Weeks Act in Congress, establishing the national forest system and its 20 million acres of protected public lands nationwide.

Even as certain “free market” conservatives argued that government lacked the constitutional authority to purchase private lands and others sought to dismantle the nascent Forest Service altogether, Republican reformers like John Wingate Weeks of Lancaster recognized that government action was needed to rein in the excesses of a private enterprise system that placed profits before people and the planet. Although I can claim no part in that struggle (save my grateful membership in the N.H. Forest Society today), I know it stands as one of the proudest achievement in my great-great-granddad’s storied career as a Naval officer, congressman, senator and Secretary of War.

This year, New Hampshire marks the centenary of the White Mountain National Forest, a crown jewel of the national forest system and one of the most visited outdoor recreation areas in the United States east of the Mississippi. The 750,000-acre tract of land with its 1,200 miles of hiking trails and countless tourist attractions contributes nearly $9 billion to our state’s outdoor recreation industry – home to some 80,000 jobs – while also enabling responsible logging and other commercial activities. It is a gift to be treasured, especially on autumn days like this.

Nevertheless, the long-term health of our national forests – and the larger ecosystem on which they and we depend – is now under increasing threat from an even greater environmental challenge than the one my great-great-granddad faced a century ago: rapid climate change.

As New Hampshire and the nation transitioned from hydropower in the 1800s to mass consumption of fossil fuels today, heat-trapping carbon emissions from power plants and cars have caused a rate of atmospheric warming not seen since human life began. If current emissions trends continue, scientists warn, New Hampshire with its 80 percent reliance on imported fossil fuels and other non-renewable energy sources will see a 10-degree increase in average surface temperatures this century. The results of our 2-degree warming to date since 1900 are already frightfully evident in northern New Hampshire and across the state.

For example, studies show that over half of New Hampshire’s iconic moose in the Great North Woods have died due to tick infestations caused by warming winters. Loons are also increasingly at risk as rising temperatures disrupt their natural migration from inland lakes to the sea. Even the sturdy maple tree with its trademark leaves and sap – part of a billion-dollar tourism and maple sugaring industry – is under threat as winter thaws and summer droughts cause it to “sicken, decline and disappear (or) migrate north,” according to NHDES. Winter as we know it may well disappear.

And that’s not to mention the estimated 123 lives lost in New Hampshire annually due to carbon pollution, at a cost of over $1 billion to the public, or the billions more dollars in coastal property threatened by rising seas.

Addressing the impending climate crisis will require an even more comprehensive and collaborative approach than that untaken by principled conservatives and their allies a century ago. Republicans and Democrats, in New Hampshire and beyond, now have an urgent responsibility to stand up to the fossil fuel industry – the number one contributor to global warming – and begin the wholesale transformation of our energy system to clean renewable sources of power. As before, it is a choice between the short-term profits of a privileged few and the long-term health of people and the planet.

The newly released “100 percent Renewable Energy Strategy for New Hampshire’s Future” is an important step in that direction. Written by a volunteer group of state legislators, environmentalists, and businesspeople, the plan charts a realistic pathway for New Hampshire to move from near-total reliance on non-renewable energy today to 100 percent homegrown clean energy by 2040.

By harnessing three abundant resources in our state and along our coast – sunlight, wind and water – and investing in energy conservation, the strategy would rapidly reduce carbon pollution while curbing electricity costs, keeping our energy dollars close to home, and adding thousands of clean tech jobs in a state that desperately needs to attract a younger workforce. It is a compelling alternative to Gov. Chris Sununu’s short-sighted and irresponsible Ten-Year Energy Strategy released earlier this year, which would only deepen our state’s dependence on dirty energy imports.

The time is now for conservatives and progressives to apply the lessons of the past and build a brighter, cleaner energy future together for the state we love.

(Dan Weeks is a 12th generation Granite Stater and director at ReVision Energy. He contributed to the 100 percent Renewable Energy Strategy.)