Common Lands, Common People, by Richard W. Judd, is a fascinating account of the origins of conservation in Northern New England. Published by Harvard University Press in 1997, Judd’s book has been an important reference for me for the last 15 years.
There are all kinds of lessons for us in this book, on contemporary issues from commercial fishing to tourism, and of course many impacting hunting and fishing. I will share these, along with passages from the book, with you from time to time over the next few months.
Let’s start with this, from a section titled “Farmers, Fish, and Tourism,” about “a sharp debate over game and fish management in the 1890s.”
American sportsmen… rated hunting and fishing grounds in terms of their picturesque qualities, thus diffusing conservation concern beyond the narrow issue of game and fish.
Fishing represented one area of conflict that had to be reconciled before farmers and tourists could share this land. Well into the 1870s fish commissioners, like most rural people, thought of fishing either in subsistence or commercial terms or as a form of recreation unburdened by special “sporting” skills. Maine commissioners noted the essential injustice of local people’s bearing the expense of fish and game protection while “men from abroad come into our woods, and… hunt our deer… (and) feed on our fish.”
As early as 1874 they pondered the economic impact of this influx of genteel anglers, but their primary responsibility was guarding commercial fisheries. These biases in favor of rural fishing traditions were evident in early controversies over ice-fishing.
Responding to petitions from summer resort proprietors in the 1870s, the Maine legislature outlawed ice-fishing on several lakes, since it placed demands on the resources when no tourists were in the area. Commissioners denounced the laws as a “monopoly” granted to the hotel owners: farmers were “cut off… from their share of a sport (for which) they pay their full portion in fostering and protecting.”
During these years, however, the constituency for fish conservation changed. Farmers experienced relatively good times following the recession of the mid-1880s, and as they focused on the business of farming, their interest in fish propagation waned. Fish commissioners, on the other hand, drew support from urban elites and resort interests.
The pressure behind this sift to a recreational constituency came largely from state and county fish and game clubs. Between 1865 and 1900 scores of these organizations appeared throughout New England, typically led by prominent locals and wealthy out-of-state sporting enthusiasts. The clubs linked arms with state fish and game commissions and helped turn the conservation movement toward urban formulations of common-resource use.
This new urban conservation vision excluded certain entrenched rural practices, such as bait-fishing for trout or salmon. In a letter to Maine Fish Commissioner Leroy Carleton, Philadelphian Jay Cooke Jr. punctuated his conservation message with a blunt reference to the economic power exerted by recreationists of his class:
“As you know I have a very expensive home in Maine, my place there having cost me up to this time at least $10,000… and in addition to this my years expenditures in Maine for wages, supplies, etc. amount to several thousand dollars… If there is to be a constant falling off in fish and game it cannot be expected that… a class of people will visit the State who, drawn by the sport to be found there, employ guides and spend large sums for supplies which go to the farmers and artisans of the State.”
Indeed! In my next column on Judd’s book, we’ll take a look at a dispute over inland open-water fishing in the Rangeley region.
A glance back can often propel us forward. Knowing where we’ve been, and how far we’ve come, may help us create a better future for Maine sportsmen, our outdoor industry, and the wildlife of our state.