A Catskill Catalog: November 30, 2011

From 1946 to 1985, Henry Bernstein patrolled the woods and steams of the Ulster County Catskills. Hank retired as an environmental conservation officer, but his career began as a game protector.
Hank Bernstein died, this past July, at 94. Only a handful of men who once carried the title of game protector survive him.

Protection of the environment really began with the protection of wildlife. In the years after the American Civil War, the woods were treated as a resource: extract all you can. By the late 1870s, thoughtful Americans were becoming increasingly conscious of the rapacious destruction of the wilderness.

Market hunting for food, fur, and feather depleted many species of wildlife. The once-abundant beaver, the very reason for the establishment of colonial New York, were nearly gone. The deer herd was at an all-time low, and the passenger pigeon was on the way to disappearance.

Clear cutting of timber and runoff from tanneries destroyed the habitat - woods and streams - wildlife needed to survive. The jig was up.

In 1880, New York State authorized the appointment of eight game protectors whose duty was to enforce the laws protecting deer, fish, and birds, and arrest, without warrant, game law violators. The eight men selected were the first law enforcement officers of the state of New York, preceding the state police by 37 years.

It wasn’t an easy job. Those who were accustomed to taking their full often balked at the intervention of the warden. This was an era of trophy hunting and vast takes of fish and fowl. Game protectors were up against old habits and, sometimes, vicious men.

In the spring of 1914, Game Protectors Samuel Taylor and John Willis approached two men taking protected birds, with a shotgun, along the Mohawk River. “Surrender. You’re under arrest,” Taylor announced, just before one of the men shot him, a shotgun blast to the chest and stomach. The violators ran.

Game Protector Willis fired after them, but missed, then got his colleague to a hospital. Samuel Taylor died, that night, of wounds suffered defending wild birds. His killers were never found.
This danger required the recruitment of a certain kind of man for the job. Governor Teddy Roosevelt, in 1899, described that man. “I want, as game protectors, men of courage, resolution and hardihood who can handle the rifle, axe and paddle; who can camp out in summer or winter; who can go on snowshoes, if necessary, who can go through the woods by day or by night without regard to trail.”

Hank Bernstein was certainly that kind of guy. A Kingston lad, he attended summer camp at the old Woodland Valley School, up on Panther Mountain, fell in love with the Catskills and the outdoor life. He was an Eagle Scout, a graduate of Virginia Military Institute, a man’s man.

His reputation was as a stickler for the law. Violators will be prosecuted. Some wag, at his well-attended funeral, remarked that the Twelve Apostles, well-known takers of fish, were soon to be ticketed for even the smallest violation of heavenly fishing regulations.

The Catskills were home to several game protectors who, like Hank, had storied careers. The late Bryan Burgin of Margaretville is generally recognized as the father of hunter safety and hunter training. There is a wonderful 1955 film of Bryan at work, once a short shown between Saturday afternoon double features, now a video on YouTube. Just type “fish and game protector” into YouTube search to find it.

In 1964, the title game protector was changed to conservation officer, and, in 1970, changed, once again, to environmental conservation officer, the title held, today, by each of 330 sworn officers of the law.

Whatever the law enforcement title, Margaretville’s Bob Van Benschoten rose through the ranks as far as anyone can go. Born and raised on the New Kingston farm settled by his revolutionary war veteran forbear, Jacob Van Benschoten, Bob began his career as a game protector and ended it in command of the uniformed corps of all environmental conservation officers.

Bob reported directly to the commissioner, who was, in Bob’s time, Ogden Reid, former congressman and descendent of the family that published the New York Herald Tribune. Scions of two long established and distinguished American families, one urbane, the other rural, these two had their share of head-knocking battles. Common sense was usually with Bob.

Today, the deer herd seems plentiful; there are lots of bears. Wild turkeys, once nearly gone from New York, are here in abundance. Hunting season continues to be important to the mountain economy and, frankly, to the mountain way of life, a way of life lived, generation after generation, in the outdoors, with gun and rod.

Seems, those old game protectors among us protected much more than the fish, birds, and deer, although if that were all they did, it would have been enough.