Earth Day 2018 – Environmentalism Right Here in New England and New York

In 1876 an MIT professor, Edward Pickering, and Charles Hitchcock of Dartmouth College, among others, invited Boston area academics to form an association for the purposes of exploring New Hampshire’s White Mountains.  Over the following years, what became the Appalachian Mountain Club would build several overnight huts in the Presidential range, promoting protection and enjoyment of the outdoors in New England and New York for years to come.  The group inspired John Muir and a group of academics in California to form a similar group in the American West, the Sierra Club, in 1892.

The AMC was not the first club dedicated to uplifting the human spirit and health through the exploration of nature’s beauty.  Another small group of academics had formed the Alpine Club in Williamstown, Mass., in 1863, who had hiked Mt. Greylock together for years and headed further north into Vermont and New Hampshire.  The White Mountain Club of Portland, Maine was a group dedicated to exploring the same peaks.

But Boston’s leading universities provided uniquely fertile conditions for the beginnings of the early environmental movement, and the AMC soon grew beyond it’s peers as they focused not on the organization of activities merely for members, but a permanent realignment about how our society should both protect and utilize the outdoors.  The Club lobbied hard for the passage of the Weeks Act, signed in to law in 1911, which provided for the creation of our National Forests, through the federal government’s purchase of 6 million acres in the Eastern US.  Much of this land formed the Green Mountain National Forest in Vermont and the White Mountain National Forest of New Hampshire.  In a time of dramatic growth in New England’s logging industry, this federal government intrusion into the affairs of the states was not without controversy.  House Speaker Joe Cannon declared “not one cent for scenery” in 1901.  In 1907, $8 million in damage from the flooding of West Virginia’s Monongahela River into the city of Pittsburgh galvanized public support for federal intervention in the name of environmental protection.  Eventually, Cannon himself agreed to bring the proposed law to the floor of the House.

Today, the Appalachian Mountain Club and its volunteers maintain 1,800 miles of trails from Maine to Washington, DC, and operate dozens of programs to provide recreational opportunities to thousands of Americans.

In our view, one of the organization’s most important contributions to environmental advocacy is the idea of working landscapes.  In effect, the AMC and others did not argue for conservation for the purposes of creating untouchable landscapes or “scenery” that would be preserved as-is.  They argued for restricting activities on these lands and preserving their natural heritage, but also for making them accessible to all people as a means to better connect us with Mother Earth.  There are ski resorts, snowmobiling trails, hunting grounds, fishing spots, hiking trails, and camp grounds.  Shared memories in these environments instill lifelong passions for the outdoors among the young and inspire and reinvigorate the elderly.

On this Earth Day it can feel as if environmental issues are mostly “elsewhere” – Bears Ears National Monument, the proposed opening of the Pacific to oil exploration, China’s carbon emissions.  But right here in New England and New York our working agricultural landscapes are threatened by continued commercial development, competition from cheaper industrial factory farmed products from around the world, and a lack of infrastructure to get small farm products to market.

But we are in the midst of a resurgence: an important part of our region’s heritage, viewsheds, and human connection to the land, New England’s perennial pastures are some of the most productive in the country.  This makes them among the best places in the world to produce animals using rotational grazing  – a farming system that mimics nature’s natural rhythms, regenerating and building rather than deteriorating and destroying soil fertility, not to mention sequestering carbon in the process.  The Northeast is the only region in the country where the average age of farmers is declining, the average size of farms is declining, and the number of farms is increasing (source: USDA).  With the support of our members, we are proud to have taken several young and beginning farmers pursuing this model of agriculture from below the point of financial viability to above it, allowing one person to make a full time livable wage from farm work alone.

On Earth Day 2018, a toast to young and beginning farmers in New England and New York – the next crazy group of environmentalists to pursue what is not a radical but a centrist and common sense idea: the preservation of agricultural lands through their active human use, in a financially and environmentally sustainable system.