Murder in New Jersey

Doe Day: The Antlerless Deer Controversy in New Jersey

by Paul Tillett
Rutgers, 126 pp., $5.00

There is a species of political literature which no one, outside a very small circle of academics, pays any attention to, and yet which provides some of the most interesting and instructive insights into the nature of democratic politics. I refer to those books—published regularly by university presses and consigned promptly to oblivion—that are “case studies” in “natural resource management.” I myself first became aware of their existence a couple of years ago when I came upon a Harvard University Press book by Ashley L. Shiff called Fire and Water: Scientific Heresy in the Forest Service. What moved me to begin reading it I cannot now remember, or even imagine. But, despite its graceless prose, I was utterly fascinated. It told the story of the heroic efforts of the U.S. Forestry Service, in the first four decades of this century, to persuade, cajole, and coerce the farmers and lumbermen of the Southeast to cease and desist from their habit of annually burning (i.e., thinning out) their forests of longleaf pine, under the illusion that such burning was an appropriate form of soil and woodland conservation. By the time the Forestry Service had succeeded in imposing its will, scientific evidence began to accumulate that, in truth, this kind of burning was a highly effective form of conservation. The bureaucratic complications that ensued will survive comparison with the most ingenious of French bedroom farces. Whenever, these days, I hear someone pontificate dogmatically on the grand theme of “science and public policy,” my mind gently wanders amidst the longleaf pine.

Paul Tillett’s Doe Day has a far more modest compass, and in it science suffers no such interesting and ironic reversals. But it, too, is enlightening in a way that few works of “political science” (or of journalism, for that matter) can claim to be. Its ostensible subject is the dispute in New Jersey, during the years 1958-61, over the declaration of an annual Doe Day controversy reveals that “…female) deer could be shot with impunity—something that was otherwise strictly forbidden. Its real subject is the problem of defining the common good in a democracy; for, as Marion Clawson points out in his Preface, the Doe Day controversy reveals that “..a [mere] resolution of the conflicts between rival interest groups does not necessarily produce a solution in the general public interest or even in the long-run interests of the groups concerned…”

Incredibly enough, there seem to be too many deer in New Jersey, or at least in parts of New Jersey, They number some 70,000—considerably more than when the white man first set foot on these shores. (People who cannot bring themselves to believe this will doubtless also refuse to believe that about one-third of the total land area of the United States is still forest; but it’s nevertheless so.) New Jersey has not. like Pennsylvania and New York, actually witnessed a “population explosion” among its deer. Still, the problem was sufficiently acute—and sufficiently vexing to farmers, motorists, and suburban gardeners—for the state’s…

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