This Land is my Land -- Absolutely?

The notion that individuals have absolute ownership of pieces of the landscape underlies the engagement of some humans to the land. But the reality of absolute ownership of everything about the land fell away long ago. In Canada, the landowners’ rights to impose their wishes on the water flowing over their land were restricted by common water laws. In the 1970’s the first “pollution” regulations eliminated landowners rights to unrestricted “use” of the air above their land and water under their land. No, ownership is not absolute.


Absolute ownership has not been the rule in some countries for hundreds of years. Without any written law, Swedes have understood since about 1200 that camping on someone’s property was allowed as long as the campers did no damage and caused no disturbance. Similarly in the United Kingdom, historically, paths, gates and stiles on private lands have been open to the public.


Such communal sharing of the landscape also is true in parts of Canada. In Newfoundland a public path cutting across your front porch is common practice. In Cape Breton, along the Margaree River, public paths following the riverbanks are furnished with benches for hikers and fishers to take a rest and enjoy the scenery.


Where did other parts of Canada get the notion that landowners absolutely own the land, the landscape, and all the environmental functions? That influence could have come from our neighbours to the south. They vigorously defend their territorial boundaries. That defence peaks in places such as Texas where the barrel of a gun has commonly delivered the no trespass message.


How does the belief in absolute ownership of lands affect the way the lands are cared for? What is the effect on stewardship of lands and waters? Various regulations have removed some features from that proposition of absolute ownership. Degradation of air quality, pollution of surface water, contamination of groundwater and damage to populations of game animals are firmly outside the rights of landowners and landusers. But some, who still believe in ownership rights, argue that if you pay land taxes you have the right to do as you wish to the land. They argue that it is the owner’s right to ignore or refuse any suggestions to conserve the forest or the topsoil. If conservation is inconvenient, threatens the profit marginally or even is non-traditional, they believe it is the owner’s right to ignore it. In these cases there is a clear conflict between individual rights and the common good.


In many instances the conflict is not with the historic process of transferring ownership from monarchs (the Crown) to commoners. Instead, clinging to absolute ownership arises from commercial competition that is believed to be the ultimate measure of success. If that competition is opportunistic, the time span over which success is judged can be too short. Cash flow can be enhanced by an unplanned, opportunistic harvest of a forest but the value of that forest as an investment will be significantly reduced when considered on a time scale appropriate to forest growth. At the same time, continuous annual income from that forest is no longer possible.


Similar problems occur with evaluations done on shortened time scales in other types of land and water management. Superficial planning approval of tourist and retirement developments on lakes is an example. Here the municipalities take the role of “owners”. If a short-term increase in the tax base is “harvested” without evaluation of the longer-term effects of the increased intensity of human activity on the ecological processes of the lake, the lake’s longer-term value as an investment may suffer. Again, opportunism causes losses to the public good.


Surrendering to opportunism can be avoided by early consideration of good stewardship for the lands and waters. This will require that the notion of “ownership” recognizes that “owners” are fleeting but the earth is lasting. Unquestionably, we will leave our marks on the earth’s processes and structures but those marks should not include ill-conceived actions rationalized by belief in owners’ rights and triggered by opportunistic commerce.

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