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A Yankee Notebook

July 23, 2012


SECOND COLLEGE GRANT, NH – There’s no telling how many times I’ve repeated this ritual since September of 1968, though records kept by the Dartmouth Office of Outdoor Programs could probably come pretty close to the correct number. I climb over the height of land east of the Connecticut River watershed, descend to the Androscoggin River, and follow it upstream to Lake Umbagog; turn north off the highway at last where the Diamond River meets the Magalloway, a few rods short of the Maine border. There’s a mandatory stop to unlock and pass through the heavy welded-steel-pipe gate, and shortly afterward a pause beside the big swamp to check out the osprey nest atop a giant white pine that’s been dead for as long as I can remember. Then it’s on across a wide, sturdy bridge built for logging trucks, uphill past the deep gorge of the Diamond, and finally into the gentle valley above and the cabins scattered sparsely for miles along the river.

Dartmouth College has owned the 27,000 acres of the Second College Grant for over 200 years – the New Hampshire legislature gave it to the College in 1807 to help support its educational mission – and over those years the township-sized tract of forest land has seen many changes. Early logging stripped much of it clean, until the College assumed closer management of the resource, and generations of undergraduates have enjoyed its recreational possibilities. In recent years, logging operations have shifted from horses and skidders to harvesters and huge trucks requiring roads usable almost year-round, so that now only a clueless tyro could get lost here, a fact that many of us old-timers (who were often lost) deplore. But that’s progress.

For decades the College has enforced a policy of limited access; hence the locked gate (there are several) and the requirement of reservations available only to people with a connection to the College – staff, faculty, students, alumni, contractors – and a permit dangling on each vehicle’s rearview mirror mount. Other people are welcome to walk or bicycle into the Grant for hunting or fishing, but there’s no overnight camping, and fires are verboten. Likewise ATVs and snow machines. This has occasionally caused some disgruntlement among folks with probably innocent intentions, and no connections. But that’s the way it goes; and that’s the point of this essay.

In the 65 years since I first joined the Boy Scouts and realized the joys of tramping, fishing, and hunting, I’ve come to see that the wild lands most worth visiting have been either in private hands or otherwise tightly controlled. That’s not a welcome observation in this nation of populist passions, but it’s nevertheless true. The best salmon fishing is on rivers owned or leased by wealthy sportsmen, the best hiking in forests closed to motorized recreational vehicles, the best hunting in woods far from easy access. I’ll be fishing this week, for example, in a privately owned pond on which the public is welcome, with the implication that misuse of the place could result in its being closed. It’s further protected by about half a mile of terrible road. The fishing, as a result, is great, a fact that I try to perpetuate by catch-and-release only.

In the last year or so, a kayaker who apparently researched Vermont state laws determined that nothing prohibited him from paddling in a shallow pond in the Town of Berlin that happens to be the City of Montpelier’s water supply. Exercising his presumed right, he was charged with trespassing. After a series of appeals, his position was affirmed by the Vermont Supreme Court. Within days the pond was dotted with kayakers, canoeists, and fishermen who suspected (rightly) that it was full of very large and unsophisticated bass.

The city struck back, posting access to the pond across its land, which comprises almost all the shoreline. Berlin, which owns the remaining access, may follow suit – or may have already. The folks who live around the pond, who were most insistent that it be closed, have cited as one reason the slovenliness of the waterborne stampeders. They’re right, unfortunately. A quick survey of the shoreline where it was most used revealed cigarette butts, plastic packaging of fishing lures, and the ubiquitous “Vermont poppies” – empty beer cans. It seems that “we the people,” so often referred to in the current blogosphere as the sole remaining possessors of civic virtue, could use some lessons in personal responsibility for the preservation of natural resources.

Michael Attas, a Texas cardiologist, Episcopal priest, and co-author of Fly-Fishing: A Sacred Art, describes a visit to the public-access section of the fabled Pecos River in New Mexico: “Pull-out after pull-out was filled with campers, trash, crowds, and a general sensory overload. ...daily limits were obviously being ignored....It was nothing more than a free-for-all in the middle of one of the most historic fisheries in the West.” Later, after fishing a private section of the river, he writes, “How could we get to a point where good healthy waters are only available for a ‘select’ few, and other identical waters are being lost by the day?”

It doesn’t take a degree in rocket science to come up with answers. Those of us old enough to remember what we’ve already lost need to point out more often what’s been happening to our natural resources through carelessness. Start with the kids (as some enlightened teachers do). Get rid of children’s fishing derbies, which teach by implication that the kid who kills the most of nature’s most beautiful creatures is a winner. Prohibit “sports” like bearbaiting. Make careless or intentional misbehavior more consequential. Here in the College Grant, for example, the rules for hunting, fishing, trash removal, and leaving your cabin clean are explicit; and ignoring or disobeying them can jeopardize your future access. More of us need to realize that the availability of public resources for our use – just as with private – is not necessarily a right, but a privilege. A little more tweed and Scotch in our behavior, maybe, and less Carhartt and Copenhagen.

Photo by Willem lange