There is a sense of nostalgia in the air. With the nation celebrating (or at least honoring) the 150th anniversary of the battle at Gettysburg, lots of folks are asking a timeless question.
What was it like back then?
Over the next week or so, we'll hear lots of tales about the way the war was fought, the way the folks dressed and maybe even the horses they rode. But few will talk much about the great outdoors. Just how different were the woods and the waters when Pickett made that fateful charge?
When most folks imagine outdoor scenes of 150 years ago, they think of fields teaming with game and streams overflowing with fish. Unfortunately, that's far from the case.
Let's start with our beloved whitetail deer. The decades encompassing the Civil War were far from civil. The idea of wildlife management crossed the minds of very few hunters. Americans killed deer without pondering the consequences of the slaughter. By the time the canons roared in Gettysburg, the state's deer population was hanging by a thread.
In fact, when the Game Commission was started in 1895, one of its top priorities was restoring the deer population. By 1906, the herd was so small that the agency was forced to stock deer in the state's forests.
With fishing, the news is just as bad. The folks that voted Lincoln into office would love to have the kind of opportunities we have today. Remember, trout were not stocked in the state's creeks until well after the war ended. And the Susquehanna's prized smallmouth bass weren't introduced into the river until a couple of decades after the bayonets and rifles were stashed away.
Again, the Fish and Boat Commission was started largely out of necessary. After decades of widespread abuse and waterway destruction, the state's shad population had gone all but extinct. The commission was formed in 1866 with the goal of restoring the state's once-robust shad numbers.
And what about the forests? Again, the news is not good. What we've got today is far better than what the soldiers were fighting for 150 years ago.
As the war raged up and down the East Coast, Pennsylvania's logging industry was nearing its peak. In fact, many historians argue that Williamsport was the capital of the world's logging industry.
With its 29 sawmills dotting the edges of the Susquehanna River, the town played a large role in clear-cutting much of the state's woodlands. But the activity could not last. Shortly after the turn of the century, Penn's woods had been so decimated by rampant logging, the industry virtually collapsed.
The Civil War era acted as the nation's adolescence. Our country was young and growing. We knew the value of our natural resources, but we had yet to understand that managing those resources was a vital function.
Truly, the great outdoors were much different 150 years ago. Things may not be perfect today, but our woods and waters are in far better shape than they were when soldiers were lining up to fight.
-- Andy Snyder writes about the outdoors for The York Dispatch. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.