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The Common Roots of Environmental History

Photo courtesy of Lincoln County Historical Association

The Common Roots of Environmental History
Research reveals the ecological ethic of northern New England's rural population has long been at the heart of the conservation movement

About the Photo: Maine's environmental legacy originated not with lawmakers or conservationists but with everyday people who eked out an existence that was dependant on sustainable natural resources.

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When Richard Judd came to Maine for the first time in 1980 to complete a post-doctoral research project on the history of logging in Aroostook County, the men and women he interviewed were interested in more than telling stories about the past.

Maine had embarked on its spruce budworm spray projects, and Judd, who was doing his work for the Forest History Society and The University of Maine, assumed that the farmers would wholeheartedly support the pesticide spraying. But when Judd broached the subject with Pete Sawyer of Ashland, Maine, the farmer and forestland manager for Dunn Timberlands launched into a detailed discussion about the project's merits, and its environmental dangers and drawbacks.

In families like Sawyer's and others in Aroostook County that had worked the land for generations, Judd found a homegrown ecological perspective that balanced industry and sustainable development. This communitarian ethic, neither uniformly conservationist nor anti-conservationist, recognized the challenges involved in making good decisions and standing up as advocates for them.

For years, social scientists credited urban intellectuals and politicians with formulating conservation measures, and depicted local farmers and fishermen as opposing conservation. But in his research, Judd has uncovered the roots of the environmental movement among the ordinary farmers and fishermen of northern New England.

"One of the perennial arguments against conservation or environmental legislation is that it is an idea cooked up by a noisy minority or a bunch of elites who want to lock up resources for their own limited uses," says Judd, UMaine professor of history. "I think it's very important that we understand where these ideas came from not from elites, but from a broad spectrum of ordinary people who saw these resources as their legacy and set out to protect them. The conservation legacy and the environmental legacy is a popular legacy. It belongs to ordinary people like us, and it's up to ordinary people to protect it."

Judd has been exploring environmental history for more than two decades. He has written three books on the subject: Common Lands, Common People: The Origins of Conservation in Northern New England; Natural States: The Environmental Imagination in Maine, Oregon and the Nation; and Aroostook: A Century of Logging in Northern Maine, 1831-1931. He also has taught numerous courses on environmental history and served as associate editor of the Journal of Forest History for three years.

In archival sources such as legislative petitions and journals from the 19th century, Judd has found evidence that citizen initiative was the main thrust behind the environmental movement. He found that elements of Christian theology, practical wisdom, economic incentive and secondhand natural history combined with the science of resource management and class interests to shape the emerging philosophy of resource use.

For instance, in 1847 the Lawrence, Mass., textile mill owners constructed a dam on the Merrimack River, which blocked the migratory route for salmon. New Hampshire farm families that depended on the salmon circulated a petition to force their lawmakers to send a complaint to the Massachusetts legislature. Subsequently, both states established fish commissions to protect their waters.

"I had read accounts of this petition in secondary sources, but was lucky enough to find the actual document, with a few hundred scrawled signatures attached to it, in the Massachusetts State Archives. Holding that document in my hand, I could imagine the outrage those old New Englanders felt toward the corporation dam, and I was awed by the feeling that I held in my hand the instrument that, you might say, touched off the conservation movement in America," Judd says.

Judd's research on 20th-century environmentalism in Maine and Oregon confirms that grassroots activists continued to be instrumental in shaping conservation legislation and attitudes about the environment.

"For a conservation measure to be passed, it must be perceived as an expression of democratic will," he says. "When conservation legislation transcended the grassroots ideologies and became an elite proposition, it met its fiercest resistance."

Settlers arrived on the northern New England frontier in increasing numbers after the French and Indian War (1755-1760). They cut trees, burned forests, leveled the land, and introduced new crops and livestock, building idealized agrarian communities of small, economically independent farms.

The New England agricultural system of mixed husbandry, in which farms were profitable only if men and women could bring in some form of income in each month of the year, required rural people to take to the countryside to hunt or fish. Relying on many off-farm resources, they became sensitive to the integrity of the natural landscape.

But by the 1820s, earlier practices had depleted the soil's fertility, as well as wildlife and fish populations. Young people were moving to the cities or to more productive farmlands out West. The out-migration had intensified after the exceptionally cold year of 1816, and after the completion of the Erie Canal allowed shipments to reach Eastern metropolitan markets and compete with New England grains and produce. In addition, industries began monopolizing natural resources, such as forests and rivers, that were once considered common property.

"In order to rebuild the image of the New England farm and to stem the loss of rural youth, agricultural leaders launched a farm reform movement in the decades before the Civil War. This movement centered on soil conservation, better fertilizers, more efficient farm techniques and stock, and more effective marketing. It also included an attempt to reform the natural landscape more productive woodlots, more sustainable forestry, more abundant fisheries because the farm economy relied on a whole range of natural resources for its profitability," Judd says.

Intense political battles ensued when industries used resources for commercial purposes, such as constructing dams across the major rivers, using rivers for waste disposal, clear-cutting forests, or using destructive commercial fishing techniques and equipment that wiped out whole fisheries. River fishing decreased dramatically and near-shore ocean fishing stocks declined by the 1870s.

Concurrently, legislation regulating fisheries and game resources developed out of colonial town ordinances. For instance, very early town ordinances employed deer reeves, moose wardens or fish wardens to watch over hunting and fishing occupations that were later taken up by employees of the state. By the turn of the century, when the tourism industry was booming, conflict arose when these laws were redesigned to protect fish and game resources for elite, usually out-of-state hunters and anglers. The rural population's conservation ethic and strategies of common resource management were adapted by those elites but for different reasons.

"Very wealthy tourists wanted scenic backdrops for their lavish hotels, and to pursue fish and game for sport rather than sustenance," Judd says.

These opposing interests fueled intense clashes about the proper techniques for hunting and fishing. Legislation resolved such differences only gradually and through compromises. Tensions continue still, from debates about out-of-state hunting licenses to Maine's proposed North Woods State Park.

By the middle of the 20th century, Judd writes in Common Lands, Common People, "rural people confronted a series of changes in the ways their landscape and resources were used. They responded by reasserting their claims to the commons, rebuilding traditional justifications, and adapting, finally, to the new authority systems that were necessary to accommodate the broader scope of resource use and distribution.

"Their response, animated by a moral vision of democratic access to common lands and by a perfectionist drive to complete this natural landscape, blended, albeit uneasily, with urban Romantic visions and scientific expertise to give New England its basic resource-management policy," according to Judd.

Because of their long histories of grassroots activism, states like Maine and Oregon have fashioned identities based on natural beauty and rural economies, and have passed progressive environmental legislation.

"These states are representative of what's going on in the nation at large," Judd says.

"Northern New England and Oregon serve as repositories for environmental values and as examples of the possibility of securing conservation measures and much of that is because of grassroots activism."

by Gladys Ganiel
November-December, 2002

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