Fishing takes us to some of the most beautiful places out there, from mountain streams to mangrove estuaries. Much of that fishing, if not most, takes place on public land. In the U.S., if you want to fish on private property, you need to obtain permission from the landowner, something more easily said than done.
In This Land Is Our Land: How We Lost the Right to Roam and How to Take It Back, Ken Ilgunas discusses roaming laws and culture in depth, from our history as a country that embraces private ownership to the countries that value the right to roam.
Although exclusive private property is now an integral part of our American society, it’s not a universally-followed idea. Many countries, although they have private property, allow the public to access these private lands for recreational use.
Although the details of the laws vary, countries like Scotland, Finland, and Sweden have chosen to incorporate some sort of a right to roam in their culture. Sweden’s system, allemansrätten, in particular grants quite lenient access to private land. Under this law, people can walk, cycle, ski, camp, picnic, and more on private land. To protect the privacy of landowners, it doesn’t include people’s homes and the surrounding lawns or cultivated fields. Other land, though, like forests and unused fields, are open for recreational use.
None of these laws includes any illegal activities on private land, of course, but they rarely need to. In general, crime on private land is relatively low, and most people (even landowners) think favorably of the right to roam. Additionally, enacting the more lenient laws, like Sweden’s, was very affordable since there wasn’t much of a process to implement the new system.
These laws are in contrast to those in the U.S., which allow private property to be exclusive and limit public use to designated tracts of land, a system that keeps much of the private land in just a few hands while making it hard for the rest of the population to recreate on wild lands.
The book made a compelling argument for opening up private land use in the U.S. Countries with the right to roam tend to have happier, healthier people. The lack of accessible land for Americans has contributed to sedentary lifestyles, and also causes the few accessible areas like national parks to be busier and smoggier than many cities. It also costs quite a bit of money to maintain these areas that receive high traffic, while Sweden spent a relatively small amount of money to open up property to the public.
Most of the arguments against opening up land, such as crime, the possibility of lawsuits against landowners, and privacy concerns are discussed and offered solutions. Ilgunas sides with roamers while still sympathizing with the needs of landowners.
I come away thinking, if I’m ever lucky enough to have the option to put up a “No Trespassing” sign, that I won’t do so.
“We may not realize it, but there is, deep in the American subconscious, a love for roaming. To be able to roam is the mark of a free and adventurous life. To roam is not merely to walk. To roam is to explore. To roam is to blaze our own trail and find our own way. Roaming is an act of nonconformity, of independence, of self-reliance. Our culture romanticizes braving the elements and overcoming the challenges of a wild countryside. In practice we may be automobile drivers, but in spirit we are roamers.”
“Our ‘No Trespassing’ culture is a symptom of a deeper sickness afflicting our country. The right to roam and all the civic values it represents–equality, shared resources, social trust–may be one step toward a cure.”
“In valuing the always-real wildness over the fundamentally fake wilderness, we can embrace an honorable and sustainable relationship with our environment.”
“What I’m calling for, I’d like to think, transcends modern political attitudes of conservative and liberal, Republican and Democrat, because the freedom to walk in the woods is something far more timeless, far more ancient, far more fundamental to leading a good life as a human being.”
“We have borrowed from Europe in the past, and it’s okay to borrow from Europe again, for we still have much to learn. After all, while laws have borders, ideas don’t.”
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