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
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,"
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
"Very wealthy tourists wanted scenic backdrops for their lavish hotels,
and to pursue fish and game for sport rather than sustenance," Judd
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
for more stories from this issue of UMaine Today Magazine.