- Common Lands, Common People: The Origins of Conservation in Northern New England *
Richard Judd has written a classic in environmental history; its method and argument have implications far wider than its limited geographic range and time period would indicate. The subject is the story of the beginnings of environmental regulation in northern New England from 1763 to the early twentieth century. It is an important study because these events form the background for what happened across America in the same period. Much of the rest of the nation was influenced by New England, and large parts of the West had vigorous settlement from there, which helped to form concepts of political community and of what makes up the relationship between culture and nature.
Most studies of the evolution of conservation have dealt with influential writers such as Thoreau, George Perkins Marsh, and John Muir, or governmental leaders such as Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot. They have viewed the environmental movement from the top down and have left the impression that it was an elite phenomenon directed from urban centers by the intelligentsia. Judd examines the expressions of the people who directly used resources: farmers who cleared land or kept woodlots, lobster fishers, lumbermen, and local politicians. He finds that conservation has its roots in the same places as American democracy does. His sources are not primarily literary works or government documents, but records of businesses small and large, proceedings of town councils, speeches, diaries, and letters to editors of local newspapers. They provide a sense of what went on in the minds of those whom the author accurately terms the “common people.” Although their concerns were complex and sometimes contradictory, it was their grassroots support that made the American commitment to conservation possible.
Judd traces three major assumptions in popular thought about the land. First is the idea of the commons: a democratic principle of access to such resources as forests and wildlife, waters and fish. Second is the concept of molding the natural landscape to serve human needs. Third is reverence for nature, a sense that it has a right to be balanced with, and in some ways protected from, human use. As a Vermont man warned, “It is better not to meddle at all with nature’s arrangements, than to interfere without sure knowledge of what should be done” (p. 191). All three of these assumptions imply a public interest in the environment that sometimes conflicted with private property, a principle held as tenaciously in New England as anywhere else.
The narrative begins in the late 1700s, the period in which “a natural landscape” became “a cultural landscape” (p. 35). Unfortunately, Judd [End Page 187] ignores Native Americans, who undoubtedly made New England a cultural landscape before European settlement. The way in which the early struggle with nature was also a struggle with the aboriginal inhabitants would have added a dimension.
The narrative of Euro-American environmental history is meticulous and illuminating. Judd describes the reactions of farmers who faced soil exhaustion. Some migrated westward, but others puritanically asserted a sense of stewardship, calling for restoration of the landscape. Concern over the economic and aesthetic deterioration caused by deforestation was widespread. But forest conservation opinion was stronger in New Hampshire, where local organizations such as the Grange were instrumental in the creation of White Mountain National Forest, than in Maine, where the state sold off all its forests and where topography concealed devastated landscapes from citizens’ eyes.
Judd analyzes the failures and successes of conservation in fisheries. Attempts to restore fish runs in major rivers were defeated by industrialists, who blocked and polluted watercourses and resisted the expense of fish ladders and channels. Fishing for subsistence by citizens gave way to sport angling by the wealthy, but rural people acquiesced because they thought tourists would enrich the local economy. Lobster fishers supported size limitations when they realized that enforcement could preserve the resource from outsiders.
Conservation from the top down fails if...