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Crimes against Nature
Squatters, Poachers, Thieves, and the Hidden History of American Conservation
By Karl Jacoby
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESSCopyright © 2014 Karl Jacoby
All rights reserved.
The Re-creation of Nature
When the New York City minister Joel Headley collapsed in 1849 from a nervous breakdown, he was ordered by his doctor to try what was, for a mid-nineteenth-century American, a most unusual undertaking: a vacation. As a destination for this peculiar endeavor, Headley selected the little-known Adirondack Mountains, a series of heavily forested peaks that crowned New York's northernmost counties. The Adirondacks' clean air, tranquil scenery, and remoteness from urban centers, Headley reasoned, would provide a tonic for his shattered nerves. Although at the time upstate New York was better known for its hardscrabble farms and lumber camps than for its recreational opportunities, the frazzled minister had made a wise decision. A few weeks in the "vast wilderness" of the Adirondacks rejuvenated Headley's constitution, leading him to pronounce the region's "glorious woods" the perfect antidote to the stresses of urban life. "I could hardly believe," he exulted, "I was in the same State of which New York was the emporium, whose myriad spires pierced the heavens."
These cries of amazement were echoed by several other nineteenth-century observers, all of whom, like Headley, puzzled over the existence of extensive forestlands only two hundred miles from New York City. As one anonymous author put it in 1865, "One might expect to find it [the Adirondacks], or its fellow, somewhere in the far-off West, that mythical land which is every day drawing nearer to us,—but not on the Eastern side of the continent,—not in the Northern States, and assuredly not in the great State of New York, where its existence to-day is little short of a miracle." Many of those who sought to explain this "miracle" could only conclude that nature must have set forth unalterable laws preventing the development of the region. Following a visit to the Adirondacks in 1880, for example, A. Judd Northrop posited that "the law—not of New York but of Nature—has set apart this wilderness irrevocably to purposes which find little recognition in the marts of trade and the necessities of a population struggling for subsistence." According to such logic, the Adirondacks' harsh topography and sandy soils represented nature's way of enforcing its rule over the area. "This region has always been and will always be under the dominion of Nature," remarked Nathaniel Sylvester in 1877. "Its altitude renders its climate cold and forbidding, while its rugged surface and light soil render it in a great measure unfit for cultivation."
Headley, Northrup, and Sylvester were just a few of the many voices joining in a debate that had by the mid-nineteenth century assumed an increasingly prominent place in American culture. The discussion's core questions were deceptively simple: What is nature? And how does it shape human affairs? But at perhaps no time in United States history were the answers the source of so much intellectual ferment. The Anglo-American world of the nineteenth century witnessed an efflorescence of works seeking to plumb nature's inner workings: the transcendentalism of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau; the American school of landscape painting, developed by artists such as Thomas Cole, Frederic Church, and Thomas Moran; the rise of natural history, heralded by the founding of journals such as Nature and the American Naturalist in the 1860s; the eugenics movement led by Herbert Spencer and Francis Galton; even the popular books of Henry William Herbert, who in the 1830s immigrated to the United States, renamed himself Frank Forester, and introduced the American elite to the upper-class European tradition of sports hunting. Nature, as the historian David Arnold has aptly observed, was "one of the principal metaphors of the age, the prism through which all manner of ideas and ideals were brilliantly refracted."
Yet in spite of this shared subject matter, the era's nature studies did not always cohere in any clear or consistent manner. At the same time that A. Judd Northrup might reason that the law of nature protected the Adirondacks from development, a far more pessimistic—and influential—series of natural laws was being promulgated by a onetime schoolteacher, newspaper editor, and diplomat from Vermont named George Perkins Marsh, in a work entitled Man and Nature. The American minister to Turkey during the Crimean War and later to the Kingdom of Italy from 1861 to 1882, Marsh had long been puzzled by the environmental conditions he encountered during his postings abroad. How was it, he wondered, that the Mediterranean basin—a landscape that at the time of the Roman Empire had been lush and fertile—was now so barren? The connection between the region's current aridity and the decline of its preeminent civilization, Marsh concluded, was not coincidental. In Man and Nature, published in 1864 and "the most extensive work on land management to appear in the English-speaking world up to that date," Marsh ventured a compelling new explanation of the region's past: the Romans and the other peoples of the Mediterranean basin had doomed themselves by recklessly cutting the forests surrounding their settlements. Deprived of the leaves that had once regulated temperatures and of the roots that had once anchored topsoil, the region's deforested lands had experienced erosion, desertification, and ultimately, ecological collapse. Human folly had, in short, "changed millions of square miles, in the fairest and most fertile regions of the Old World, into the barrenest deserts."
Marsh's grim scenario both explained the past (making Marsh arguably the first environmental historian) and predicted the future. The same environmental catastrophe that had devastated the Old World, Marsh asserted, now threatened to spread to the United States and the rest of the globe, with potentially apocalyptic consequences: "The earth is fast becoming an unfit home for its noblest inhabitant, and another era of equal human crime and human improvidence ... would reduce it to such a condition of impoverished productiveness, of shattered surface, of climatic excess, as to threaten the depravation, barbarism, and perhaps even extinction of the species."
One spot that Marsh singled out as being in urgent need of protection was Headley's beloved Adirondack Mountains, which contained the headwaters of several of New York's most important rivers, including the Hudson. While the region's remoteness had so far prevented its development, Marsh feared that with each passing year settlers and lumber companies were whittling away more of the Adirondacks woodlands. Left unchecked, Marsh maintained, such actions would place New York in grave danger: "Nature threw up those mountains and clothed them with lofty woods, that they might serve as a reservoir to supply with perennial waters the thousand rivers and rills that are fed by the rains and snows of the Adirondacks, and as a screen for the fertile plains of the central counties against the chilling blasts of the north wind." Deforestation in the Adirondacks would dry up New York's principal rivers, causing "irreparable injury" to the mills and transportation networks that depended upon them.
To prevent such disaster, Marsh proposed a novel solution: New York should "declare the remaining forest [of the Adirondacks] the inalienable property of the commonwealth" and become the forest's administrator and protector. The current land policy in the United States—converting the public domain into private property—was, in Marsh's opinion, a grave mistake. "It is a great misfortune to the American Union that the State Governments have so generally disposed of their original domain to private citizens," he wrote. "It is vain to expect that legislation can do anything effectual to arrest the progress of the evil [of the destruction of woodlands] ... except so far as the state is still the proprietor of extensive forests."
Marsh advocated this radical shift in policy for two reasons. The first was a distrust of the inhabitants of the countryside, particularly the small-scale farmers who made up the bulk of the residents in places like the Adirondacks. In keeping with his Whig political beliefs, Marsh viewed these members of the lower classes as lacking the foresight and expertise necessary to be wise stewards of the natural world. Man and Nature thus included pointed critiques of "the improvident habits of the backwoodsman" and "the slovenly husbandry of the border settler." Second, Marsh believed that in a world dominated by the search for short-term private gain, only the state had the long-term public interest at heart. Marsh pointed approvingly to Europe, where coalescing national bureaucracies had established state forest academies, carefully regulated forests, and the new science of silviculture. "The literature of the forest, which in England and America has not yet become sufficiently extensive to be known as a special branch of authorship, counts its thousands of volumes in Germany, Italy, and France," he noted. If the Old World's ecological disasters had something to teach the United States, then so did its recent successes in uniting science and the state.
Undergirding Man and Nature's critique of backwoodsmen and its appeals to the lessons of European forestry lay a powerful new vision of nature. In Marsh's view, the natural world existed in a state of balance and stability. "Nature, left undisturbed, so fashions her territory as to give it almost unchanging permanence of form, outline, and proportion," he wrote in a passage anticipating twentieth-century ecology's concept of the self-perpetuating climax community. Within this static model, environmental decline came about almost exclusively from human intrusions. "Man is everywhere a disturbing agent," declared Marsh. "Wherever he plants his foot, the harmonies of nature are turned to discords." (So strongly did Marsh embrace this point, in fact, that he originally proposed titling his work Man the Disturber of Nature's Harmonies.)
Man and Nature's unique perspective on the natural world not only made the book a best-seller, it established the text as, in Lewis Mumford's words, the "fountainhead of the conservation movement." Indeed, Marsh's work originated the degradation discourse that would dominate conservationist narratives about landscape change for the next century. The discourse's essential ingredients were a natural world that was stable, predictable, and manageable; a rural populace engaged in "unwise" environmental practices that would have potentially catastrophic ecological consequences if left unchecked; and an interventionist state armed with technical and administrative expertise. Combined with one another, these narrative elements formed the central story of conservation—a tale that prophesied imminent ecological doom, unless natural resources were removed from local control and placed in the hands of scientifically trained governmental managers.
With its dire predictions of what deforestation in the Adirondacks would mean for the state's waterways, Man and Nature attracted immediate attention in New York. As early as 1872, the state legislature, prodded by an unlikely alliance of sports hunters who wanted to preserve New York's northern counties as a permanent hunting and camping ground, and industrialists concerned about maintaining an adequate flow of water for the region's mills and canals, formed a committee to look into the feasibility of adopting Marsh's recommendation to establish a park in the Adirondacks. The following year, the committee issued a report concluding "that the protection of a great portion of that forest from wanton destruction is absolutely and immediately required" and calling for the creation of a "timber reserve and preserve" in the Adirondacks. While the committee members drew much of their discussion directly from Marsh, they appended to his argument an additional point of their own: "[Besides] these weighty considerations of political economy, there are social and moral reasons which render the preservation of the forest advisable.... The boating, tramping, hunting and fishing expedition afford that physical training which modern Americans—of the Eastern States—stand sadly in need of, and which we must hope will, with the fashionable young men of the period, yet replace the vicious, enervating, debasing pleasures of the cities.... To foster and promote these natural and healthful exercises among the young men of the State, it is necessary in some measure to preserve the game, and the forest which affords it shelter."
This linkage of an environmental crisis (deforestation and water loss) and a social crisis (urbanism and the undermining of traditional models of masculinity) captures the modern and antimodern impulses that, in uneasy combination, lay at the core of the nascent conservation movement. On the one hand, conservation, with its emphasis on using the power of science and the state to rationally manage natural resources, represented a quintessentially modern approach toward the environment. On the other, conservation frequently invoked the Romantic search for authentic experience, in which nature was offered as the antidote to an increasingly industrial, "overcivilized" existence. These two positions did not necessarily contradict one another; it was possible to be an industrialist during the week and a sports hunter on the weekend (as many of the leading proponents of conservation in fact were). But tensions between the two perspectives would, at times, prove difficult to reconcile. As a result, conservation never traveled a simple trajectory. Although its central beliefs remained remarkably consistent—an emphasis on professionalization, on governmental ownership and management of the environment, and on the inherently stable and predictable character of the natural world—conservation charted an irregular orbit around these positions, as first one force than another exerted its gravitational pull on the movement.
In the case of the Adirondacks, recommendations for state action languished until 1883, when a severe drought gripped New York and the water level in its principal rivers, the Hudson, the Mohawk, and the Black, dipped to alarmingly low levels. Concerned with the effect this decline could have on the Erie Canal and downstream mills, the New York Chamber of Commerce and the New York Board of Trade added their weight to calls for state management of the Adirondacks. In response, the New York legislature passed a measure in 1883 forbidding any further sales of state lands in the Adirondacks. Over the next few years, state control over the region ratcheted steadily upward. In 1885, the legislature reorganized its holdings in the Adirondacks into a forest preserve, overseen by a forest commission. In 1892, lawmakers consolidated these efforts into the three-million-acre Adirondack Park, made up of both the Forest Preserve and adjoining private lands. An 1894 constitutional amendment stating that the Forest Preserve was to be "forever kept as wild forest lands" helped ensure the permanence of the state's experiment in conservation. The legislature also took steps to tighten the region's game laws during this period. In 1886, hunters were limited to three deer per year, a number that in 1895 dropped to two per year. Other legislation restricted such traditional hunting practices as jacking (hunting at night using a bright light to blind deer) and hounding (hunting with dogs). In fishing, the use of nets was outlawed in favor of the rod and reel. To enforce this new array of rules, the state created a "forest police," empowered "without warrant, [to] arrest any person found upon the forest preserve violating any provisions of the act creating the commission."
The ultimate result of these actions was to turn the Adirondacks of the mid-1880s into the most advanced experiment in conservation in the United States. Many of the people who would later lead the national conservation movement—Franklin Hough, Bernhard Fernow, Teddy Roosevelt, and Gifford Pinchot among them—gained their first insights into the challenges of American forestry in the woods of northern New York. Moreover, for conservationists, New York's Forest Preserve established a viable new role for the state: active supervisor of the environment. Inspired by the example of the Adirondacks, several prominent conservationist organizations, including both the American Forestry Congress and the federal Division of Forestry (which at the time possessed only an educational function, since there were no national forests to administer), held up New York's Forest Preserve—"this first attempt at making a reality of forest preservation"—as a model to be emulated nationwide. Congress eventually accepted such suggestions in 1891 when it passed the Forest Reserve Act. But during conservation's early years, it was New York's unprecedented undertaking in the Adirondacks that set the pace for the rest of the nation. "Here [in the Adirondacks], then, for the first time on the American continent, had the idea of State forestry, management of State lands on forestry principles, taken shape," observed Fernow in his 1911 textbook, A Brief History of Forestry. "A new doctrine of State functions had gained the day."
Excerpted from Crimes against Nature by Karl Jacoby. Copyright © 2014 Karl Jacoby. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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