Access to Natural Resources and Private Property Rights

So I went to Maine to get away from the city and take a dip into Nature. Some may object that driving from Canada, for 2 days – and 1000 km – to Maine, would seem like a huge detour (with a major carbon footprint attached to it). And, yes, this is true, but for someone who grew up 75 m from the sea (and married to someone who spent all his summers at the seaside), letting go of the idea of salt water as a necessary ingredient in a real summer, was just too hard. Then a good neighbour offered us a week at her mom’s house in Down-East Maine, and all of sudden we had a wonderful excuse to go.

I don’t know quite what I expected; probably spending some days just exploring the woods and shores around the cottage, and maybe 2 or 3 days taking trips to different parts of Acadia National Park; but the reality that met us was quite different.  On my very first exploratory walk around the area, looking for ripe blueberries, I was met with a dozen or so of signs telling me that this was private property and that I should keep off. Knowing that Maine is a state of hunters, I felt no urge to try to infringe on people’s private property rights. Who would want to risk ending up like a hunter’s trophy for a few blueberries and a mushroom?

So instead of a vacation of roaming freely in the woods, and exploring the seaside and beaches on foot from the house we were in, we ended up with a lot of driving in order to access beaches and cliffs and woods and hills that were publicly owned and thus open to our (environmentally sustainable) enjoyment.

Smelling the sea as I woke up in the morning stirred up a lot of emotions in me, but finding “No trespassing” signs wherever I walked aroused different feelings, and made me intensely homesick, and nostalgic for a past where I lived in a place with freedom to roam.

The freedom to roam, or everyman’s right, is the general public’s right to access certain public or privately owned land for recreation and exercise. The right is sometimes called the right of public access to the wilderness.

In Scotland and the Nordic countries of Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden this frequently takes the form of general public rights, codified in law only in the last 50-100 years. It is a type of common pool resource that allows anyone the right to traverse, camp, and collect edibles and small wood, but does not allow one to hunt, drive a vehicle, or collect materials of commercial value. Ancient traces provide evidence of the freedom to roam in many European countries, suggesting such a freedom was once a common norm.

A possible explanation as to why the right has survived mainly in the Nordic countries is that feudalism and serfdom were not established there. Another factor is the survival of large areas of unenclosed forest. Elsewhere in Europe land was gradually enclosed for private use and enjoyment, with commoners’ rights (for instance, rights to gather fuel or graze animals) largely eliminated.

In the United States hiking access to true wilderness areas is encouraged, but the property owner controls access to private lands (with exceptions for beach access and other easement rights that can be negotiated between government entities and owners to allow access to lands of unusual merit). And as I was able to experience first hand, in this kind of legal context, access to wilderness and natural resources like fresh air, water, berries,  all of a sudden has to involve a lot of driving and enlarging your carbon footprint for the majority of us.

After returning home, I did find someone who shares my views, and who works for legal change. After intense googling I came upon a project by the Alliance for Democracy where Ruth Caplan ably explains the rationale and legal history of Public Trusts and rights of nature both in the context of Maine and against a wider philosophical backdrop.


~ by Hege on July 15, 2010.

One Response to “Access to Natural Resources and Private Property Rights”

  1. Hi Hege,
    A great post, and how I feel every time I visit the US.
    I guess I have to say I love everyman’s right


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