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Holding the line: Property rights and public lands

Holding the line

“The best thing we have learned from nearly five hundred years of contact with the American wilderness is restraint, the willingness to stay our hand; to visit such places for our souls’ good…”     ~ Wallace Stenger

Teddy Roosevelt and America’s first Forester, Gifford Pinchot, believed that conservation was a cause vital to the United States’ remaining a land of equals. Acting on that belief, they did the unthinkable – they set aside large swaths of the American landscape as public land, designating National Parks, wilderness areas, and wildlife refuges, thus protecting both land and resources from the rich and powerful, the industrialists and capitalists who would “not leave the land as it is, who would only mar it.”

It was anathema to their class and status, both coming from wealthy and privileged Eastern families. The issue wasn’t necessarily class warfare; however; and it wasn’t just a battle for land or money, though those certainly played a part. It was a battle between two different mentalities sprouting from the same root that came to a head over deeply held yet conflicting American principles: the right to property and the right to liberty.

In order to have true liberty, or free-will, one must be on equal footing with everyone else. Inequality diminishes liberty. If one’s right to vote is contingent on owning property and there are laws that say certain groups cannot own property, then those groups are not on equal footing with their fellow countrymen and hence their free-will, or liberty, is hindered. This is an example of unequal treatment under the law in that some are granted privileges while others are excluded from them.

Equality is inherently an issue of access: access to an education, to vote, to own property, to employment, to knowledge and information, to the internet, to medical care, etc. The list goes on and on. Not having access to any of these leaves people in the dark ages.

Unfortunately the principle of property rights has been used as a tool to deny access to others for centuries and its use for those ends is still pursued today. The thing to understand about owning property; however, and this must be emphasized, is that property rights imply the freedom to act. Having title to property amounts to legal proof of ownership; property rights, on the other hand, amount to the owner’s possession of rights to perform certain physical actions on that property (1). In other words, property rights allow or restrict actions depending on whether you are the owner or guest of the property.

When public lands were created and given to the American people, what we got possession of was not the physical land, but the rights to perform certain actions on those lands. We were given access and equal footing with everyone else who was given those rights. It was a radical idea that rivals colonial America’s win against Britain for most unbelievable success story in American history.

But success can be short lived. The same forces working against Roosevelt and Pinchot are alive and well today. The same mentality is trying to take our property rights away, be it to the states, industry, or private citizens. The people pushing this agenda are not only trying to take public lands, they are trying to wrestle away our possession of property rights, and thus access and freedom to perform physical actions on those lands. If they succeed we will lose more than the ability to hunt and fish, to hike and bike, to backpack and kayak; we will cease to be a nation of equals and this is why:

Not everyone will have access to the pristine, natural beauty found on public lands. Places outside the noise and clatter of cities with clean air and water; places of spiritual significance, solitude and space will belong only to those who have access to them. Our ability to escape to cool and quiet alpine air to heal from an angry and violent world or to walk in the footsteps of past generations in places unchanged for hundreds of years will be gone or off limits, open only to those with the money and property rights to be there.

It’s not a partisan issue, though it is the GOP pushing this agenda. If you don’t like the presidential candidates, remember what Teddy Roosevelt was able to do and imagine the opposite. Remember also that 80 percent of Congress is up for re-election. They control the purse strings that can fund or starve management of our lands, as well as the pen to pass laws that undermine or enhance our access to them.

Holding lands in trust for future generations was a great moral issue 100 years ago and it’s still a great moral issue today. Right now, even if we do not own a house, we have property rights to land that grants us access to engage in a host of physical activities where we can feel as at home in them as anyone else.

Most of our public lands exist in the West, and the West has always been synonymous with freedom – freedom to enter what the Irish officer in the British Army, William F. Butler described in 1872:

“The great ocean itself does not present more infinite variety than does this prairie-ocean of which we speak. In winter, a dazzling surface of purest snow; in early summer, a vast expanse of grass and pale pink roses, in autumn too often a wild sea of raging fire.

No ocean or water in the world can vie with its gorgeous sunsets, no solitude can equal the loneliness of a night-shadowed prairie; one feels the stillness, and hears the silence, the wail of the prowling wolf makes the voice of solitude audible, the stars look down through infinite silence upon a silence almost as intense. One saw here the world as it had taken shape and form from the hands of the creator.”

So long as the public keeps vigilant watch over the land, deep pockets of the powerful will not prevail. But keeping watch entails more than using the land for recreation, it presupposes a duty to act as sentries and guardians ready to sound the alarm when under attack. It would be a mistake to assume that our public lands and our access to them will always be there. Nothing in politics is written in stone. In this arena, those who care the most, win.

(1) Foundation for Economic Education, Gary Pecquet. Private Property and Government under the Constitution.

 

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