An Alternative Point of View
Version of Record online: 7 JUL 2008
Volume 15, Issue 5, pages 1469–1470, October 2001
How to Cite
O'Keefe, J. (2001), An Alternative Point of View. Conservation Biology, 15: 1469–1470. doi: 10.1111/j.1523-1739.2001.1552-3.x
- Issue online: 7 JUL 2008
- Version of Record online: 7 JUL 2008
Common Lands, Common People: the Origins of Conservation in Northern New England. 1997 . Harvard University Press , Cambridge, MA . 335 pp. $18.95. ISBN 0-674-00416-7 .
In this intriguing conservation history, Richard Judd argues that, rather than arising in the wilderness West from progressive or scientific, elitist roots, the conservation movement in America had its roots among common farmers and fishers of nineteenth-century New England. It developed as these common folk were grappling with threats to their deeply held beliefs in democratic access to and common stewardship of natural resources. Relying heavily on primary sources, including agricultural journals, local news reports, legislative records, and commission reports, Judd develops a series of case studies to detail the common people's attempts to protect and preserve their familiar landscapes and resources in the face of social and institutional changes. Selected etchings, historical photographs, and maps are used effectively to illustrate points in the text. In this context, he includes Massachusetts along with New Hampshire, Vermont, and Maine in northern New England with the reasonable argument that these states all share strong, historical and political connections as well as similar landscapes, forests, and coastlines.
The book is divided into four main sections. The first, “Foundations,” describes the pioneering settlement of the northeastern frontier in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, which depended largely on exploitation of the abundant natural resources of the region. Judd sees this initial exploitation as being followed by an attempt to create a properly ordered cultural landscape containing a balance of farm and nature. The Massachusetts Bay Colony's Great Pond Ordinance of 1641, which established open access to bodies of fresh water 10 acres or more in size, and early land divisions within colonial towns reflect a collective commitment to equitable allocation of common resources and the priority of community welfare over private resource rights. These attitudes persisted and gradually evolved through this era as farm and forage subsistence was gradually supplanted by more progressive farming practices. The rise of commercial resource users further strained these traditions. This section concludes with a discussion of efforts to restock the region's already depleted inland fisheries and an examination of the ensuing legal disputes over access rights to these replenished resources.
The second section, “Common Lands,” begins with an examination of the farm reform movement. Judd views these farmers, struggling in an often marginal landscape and in the face of major economic and environmental changes to create a morally ordained, efficiently used landscape, as the foundation for Pinchot's utilitarian conservation ideas. In fact, he views these farmers as the first practical foresters, working to improve the productivity and appearance of their woodlots. At the same time, larger logging operations and their resulting environmental problems were causing major concerns throughout the East. These concerns led to the establishment of state Forestry Commissions in the late 1880s. The second section concludes with an examination of the rise of the Romantic strain of landscape appreciation in urban areas, its merger with agrarian land stewardship, and the fight for the creation of the White Mountain National Forest. This New Hampshire case is contrasted with the situation in Maine, where substantially different land-ownership, population, and development patterns and political structures produced a dramatically different approach to forest conservation.
Section three, “Common Waters,” highlights the many conflicts that arose as social and economic changes impinged on the traditional culture of local and regional fisheries. Damming rivers and streams for industrial power in conjunction with increasingly efficient commercial fishing downstream or in the bays virtually eliminated many local fisheries. Opposing views of agrarian labor or industrial capital as the source of economic value fueled much of the ensuing political debate. Inability to resolve these conflicts at the local level led to the creation of the New England state Fisheries Commissions in the 1860s. Judd reviews the attempts of these commissions, the first government agencies specifically devoted to resource conservation, to restore migratory river fisheries. Despite considerable scientific understanding, these attempts were largely unsuccessful for political reasons. Judd then traces a gradual shift in the commissions' activities away from large rivers and food supplies toward smaller, upper-watershed streams and recreational fishing, setting the stage for modern, progressive conservation efforts.
The final section, “Rural Traditions in the Progressive Era,” follows this shift from rural proponents of conservation based on utilitarian views of land use to urban proponents of conservation based on Romantic recreational ideals and the accompanying shift from local to remote control of resources. Judd sees this change driven initially by rising urbanism and a resulting increase in tourism in these rural, often economically depressed areas. The resulting conflicts pitted recreational fly fishers against subsistence bait fishers, encouraged outside recreational hunters by establishing closed seasons, and emphasized class antagonisms. Still, Judd argues, the conservation movement in northern New England at the start of the twentieth century was not so neatly split as it seemed at the national level between aesthetic preservationists and utilitarian conservationists. Finally, Judd details parallel conflicts between locals and outsiders in coastal fisheries, as native part-time fishers were confronted with competition from commercial fishers for a declining resource. In this instance, science rather than Romantic ideals determined a progressive conservation program, but traditional cultures strongly influenced policy largely because the local people were accustomed to a democratic economic structure, were politically active, and were still able to influence regional policy.
A difficulty with the book, albeit a relatively minor one, is that the case studies, organized by topic, are not sequential and seem somewhat disjointed. Although Judd lays out his thesis and approach clearly in the introduction, it can be difficult to keep in mind the overall sequence of developments.
Whether or not one agrees with Judd that the national conservation movement began in these New England villages, his description of the common people's responses to threats to their common resources posed by social and economic change is compelling and shows “commitment among common people to protect and preserve a familiar landscape” (p. 266). As an ecologist attempting to interpret the current landscapes and environmental processes in New England, I am ever more aware that it is impossible to understand the present or to plan for the future without a thorough understanding of the past. I especially recommend this book to scientists and biology students because it documents through very readable case studies the critical roles of history and politics in shaping our interaction with the environment. As Judd points out “it is important to remember that environmental thought receives its power less from scientific or legal accuracy than from the way it resonates with popular social impulses” ( pp. 11–12). Effective conservation depends on recognition of these intricate connections between nature and culture, between natural communities and human communities.