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Private Property: Please Trespass!

Shortly after we met 11 years ago, Kristin and I traveled through California. One sign, “Private Property — No Trespassing” shocked Kristin. These signs are everywhere in California, whether you’re in a dense residential area in San Francisco, or in the middle of the desert with no sign of humans in sight. Conversely, on my first hiking trip in Norway, it shocked me when we walked casually next to a farmer’s house on our way to a mountain lake. Indeed, one of the biggest cultural differences between Norwegians and Americans is around the concept of “Private Property.”

In Norway and a few other Nordic countries, there is a very old tradition called “allemannsrett”, which translates to “all man’s right.” It means you can hike through, forage, and camp at someone’s private land, and you don’t have to ask for permission. It’s not just a cultural practice. It is the law. In fact, it is against the law to build fences around unused land. Of course, some common sense restrictions apply. But for the most part, all man’s right is broad.

In the US, private property is sacrosanct. In many states, a land owner can shoot a trespasser without getting into too much trouble. In Texas, the law says that land owner can shoot a trespasser “if the landowner reasonably believes the land or property cannot be protected or recovered by any other means.” The key phrase is “if the landowner reasonably believes”.

The beach situation on the east coast of the US is mind boggling to a Norwegian. You can drive along the ocean front for hours before you come across a piece of sand that you’re allowed to put your feet on. Beaches, strictly speaking, are tidal zones and part of the ocean, thus they cannot be privately owned. But towns adopted laws that essentially seal off access to the beaches through parking laws, zoning, fences, wild-life protection, etc., because they know once you’re on the beach, you can’t be legally told to leave.

Here on Rødøy, I’ve hiked everywhere. Never did I worry about whether the land I’m hiking through is private. Once I hiked to a small beach called Risvika. Along the well-marked trail stood someone’s vacation cottage, and around it wild raspberry bushes stretched as far as I could see. I love wild raspberries – in my view the tastiest wild berries here. Before I reached out to nip off a few berries, my America-trained instincts made me hesitate. Have you ever tried to pick the fabled wild blueberries in Maine? If you’re in a national or state park, good luck finding them! Or you can pull off the road when you see a patch, either confronted with a “Private Property” sign, or picking berries while constantly worried about Dick Cheney coming up to you with two barrells of lead. Anyway, allemannsrett quickly overran my hesitation. Not only did I eat a lot of berries there, I took 2 bags of this delicious stuff home.

Which world do you want to live in? Do you want to live in a world where you can own a beach front house when you’re 55, and completely assured of your solitude and privacy, or do you want to live in a world where you have access to all the beautiful places, but when you’re 55 and have enough money for your own beach house, a foreigner might pick berries on your land?

  1. Joe #

    OK, sign me up. How do we start creating this world that you so eloquently describe? Not only are we (in the U.S.A.) tragically uncivilized on this account in comparison with our Nordic friends, but we are also well far behind where the Romans were in the 6th century A.D. Here is what Emperor Justinian wrote as one of the main principles in his “Institutes”:

    “…the following things are by natural law common to all–the air, running water, the sea, and consequently the sea shore. No one, therefore, is forbidden access to the sea-shore, provided he abstains from injury to houses, monuments and buildings generally…”

    Maryland has a longer coastline than California, but god help you if you want to try and get your feet wet in it’s abundant waters… I have spent many a frustrated (and almost tearful) day trying with all my might to get to the “sea-shore” only to be stopped again and again by signs saying “Private Property”… Yes, there may be a million individual reasons for the way we’ve let this happen, but at some point you have to stop, look at how it’s done in Norway (or California, or Spain, or a hundred other places) and say holy Moses! How did we get here? … and how can we undo this obscene and humiliating mess? I find myself asking, again and again, What kind of people are we, that we would do this? It is disheartening and speaks terrible and foreboding volumes about what motivates us.

    OK, you pushed the right button and got me started…

    October 12, 2011
  2. #

    I cast my vote for a world in which we raspberry-lovers are free to help ourselves to all the wild raspberries we want!

    October 12, 2011
  3. Todd Brown #

    I have never had difficulty getting to the beach in the USA. It is the beach view that always bothers me. All the high-rises and such can be a bit distracting.

    October 13, 2011
  4. Sadly though, our world is governed mainly by the economic principal of “Private property” and protected by law. This enables the majority of people to enforce some drastic measures in order to ensure that their property is protected. It also doesn`t help to live in a high volume consumerist society. It further enhances the feeling of ownership and the supposed satisfaction it provides.

    I`m not familiar with the customs of the Nordic nations. But it seems as Arkadia to me. It really does.

    October 13, 2011
    • My personal view is that protection of private property is a good thing because it motivates people to work and is the engine of capitalism. But we shouldn’t take it to an extreme, to the point where everybody suffers because of it.

      October 13, 2011
  5. Oh, your question was rhetorical, right? 🙂

    October 13, 2011
    • No, my question about which world is better is not a rhetorical question. I’ve been to some parts of the world where “allemannsrett” would be total disaster. It’s really a reflection of culture. Personally, I prefer a world where people are more connected and share more of their things, than a world where people are separated from one another in their private enclaves hoarding their own stuff.

      October 13, 2011
  6. That`s what I meant with rhetorical, actually. And actually thought that your opinion was the second option. Property is necessary, yes. However I wouldn`t say that capitalism is a great thing, therefore I wouldn`t point it out as being the benefit of having property. Property was and still is needed for a human being to survive. Not needed, but created as a tool to ensure this survival. Capitalism is our stupid evolution, after the survival part of our existence was taken out of the equation of life. But anyways. It is really interesting to know that there are still such places on earth, where people naturally decide to share to a certain degree, rather than to isolate each other. I`m sorry if my writings are a bit hard to understand. My English is not as fluent as I would like it to be.

    By the way – thanks to your blog, Norway got my attention for a camping trip next year 🙂 It would be difficult to achieve, but not impossible, I hope.

    October 13, 2011
  7. Kirrily #

    The US system sounds shocking. I had no idea. How wrong. but as a property owner, I would find it hard to have people wandering around willy nilly on our land.

    Here in NSW, Australia, there are in existence ‘paper roads’ which are marked roads that were never made and mostly now never would be. They cross people’s propertys and theoretically (legally) allow anyone to walk or ride on them. Generally they lead from one place to another, from a real road cross country to a village for example.

    Coming from UK, one of the main things I miss here is the footpaths that allow you walk places. Where we live in the midst of beautiful green rolling hills, you have drive everywhere, unless you own a large enough property to walk or ride around it. (Ours at 8 acreas isn’t quite big enough and besides I want to walk to somewhere to avoid driving.)

    The current paper roads are a perfect network upon which to establish a network of foot and bridle paths as in the uk – legally the right to walk upon private property already exists!

    However instead there is a widespread practise of paying thousands to close these paper roads by landowners – and I can understand why. The law also allows people to ride motorbikes on the roads. If the paper road runs right below your house, it would require tens of thousands of dollars to reroute it a few acreas away even within your own property, so it is marginally cheaper to close the whole thing. And on top of that, there is an annual financial fee that landowners have to pay if a paper road runs across their property.

    It is so shortsighted to have a network in place with legal access already granted and to allow (and encourage) it to be dismantled which is the current govt view. We can’t rely on cheap fuel to drive to the local village into the future. I could walk in an hour but by road it is too far and that is my only option.

    Luckily there is a grassroots movement trying to change this. I just hope it works before the roads are all closed. It would be so hard to reopen access that no longer exists. As it is, many people don’t even know they exist unless they get a bill for maintaining the ‘road’.

    Anyway, as someone said above, you got me started on something I feel strongly about! It seems that the British footpath and bridle path network is the ideal compromise between the US and the Nordic ways.

    October 13, 2011
    • I’ve never heard of the British footpath before, which sounds reasonable. If there are a lot of hiking trails that the public can use — even if they pass through private property — that would satisfy most outdoor enthusiasts. The problem is, who draws up the footpaths? And how can they be changed, like the problem you’re describing where people can remove the footpaths from their property.

      This whole issue is deeply rooted in culture and my sense is that it’d be hard to impose rules by law. You can’t force people kicking and screaming to open their land for everyone to use.

      An alternative is to have extensive public land, public parks, and land owned by foundations/trustee set aside for public use. Northern California at least got that right – there’re huge public parks everywhere, and they occupy the most beautiful spots. Chicago put aside the ENTIRE lake front as a public park. The east coast has the Appalachian trail. All great, but definitely limiting in comparison to the total freedom here.

      October 14, 2011
  8. Joe #

    Well, Winston, I’m glad your posting started a feisty discussion. I’d just like to add one final thought to this–and stir the pot a little more.

    The question of beach access is much simpler than all of this. It doesn’t cost anybody anything, and doesn’t involve anyone invading your private property. It’s just a very simple matter of enacting policies to maintain open passage from public roads to the seashore.

    As an example of how scattered and bizarre the rules are in the U.S. are, I’ve been to a few beaches in Delaware and New Jersey where 99% of the waterfront is owned privately, but the state has maintained clearly marked “beach access” routes. At one beach in Delaware, they even go so far as to make it absolutely clear that it is against the rules to block these paths or discourage their use in any way. So you can still have your big private mansion with the huge swathe of waterfront property, but you’ll have to “endure” the sight of other people actually enjoying the ocean. I have absolutely no sympathy for people that would complain of having to share the seashore (a very limited resource in some places) with others.

    Other states, such as Maryland, appear to have no such policies at all, and therefore you can drive for hundreds of miles, getting glimpses of the Chesapeake Bay through the trees, but without ever being able to touch the water. Believe me, I’ve done it. One of these happy “outings” ended a sunset one Saturday, when we finally found a little cul-de-sac that ended at a little sandy beach. I felt so reassured, and all I wanted to do was just go stand on the sand as the sun set and look out at the water. Of course, my moment of happiness evaporated as I saw the sign saying “Private Beach–Homeowners Association Members Only. Trespassers WILL be arrested.” Nice, huh?

    And, if it comes to the point that we (Americans) are so badly behaved that we can’t happily share public spaces with each other, then I think it’s time for a (long overdue) round of national soul-searching… What is it about our national character that we appear to be incapable of sharing these resources in a civilized way? And before I hear one more comment about how we are the “greatest nation on earth,” I’d like a good answer to this question…

    October 14, 2011
    • The key words are “to endure the sight of other people.” Why do “other people” need to be nasty by default? The attitude toward “other people” reflects the level of trust in a community, reflects the degree of social equality. When you think “other people” are nasty by default, it’s really hard to see how you can be happy. It taints every interaction you have with other people.

      October 14, 2011
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