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This Land Is Our Land: How We Lost The Right To Roam And How To Take It Back

Author : Ken Ilgunas
Published : 2018-04-10

Ken Ilgunas knows about trespassing as he traveled thousands of miles across private land in the United States and is proud of it. He is a brave man, for not only might he get shot by someone protecting his private property right, but in this book, he challenges the very idea that private property owners should have the right to exclude everyone else from their land.

In his introduction, he writes, “Should you be turned off by what may be a radical, or even heretical idea, let’s remind ourselves that there is no harm in thinking for the future. . .consider this a book for the twenty-second century – a book that calls for something unlikely right now, but plants a seed that may one day grow branches under which future generations may walk.”

Okay, we readers can consider that, for what Ilgunas proposes here requires America to go in precisely the opposite direction from where it seems to be going in 2018.

All Americans who like to roam, wander, meander, and poke around the countryside know the situation to which Ilgunas is responding, and in his early chapters he describes the land of “no trespassing” and explains the history of how it came to be this way.

He offers statistics: “If we opened up the portion of our country that is privately owned we would have an additional billion-and-a-half acres for countryside recreation: 614 million acres of grassland pasture, 408 million acres of cropland, approximately 444 million acres of privately own forest, and thousands of miles of river, lake, and ocean shorelines.”

He summarizes the history of how all this land became private, how some remained public, and how even today (maybe especially today), some of that public land is being lost to the public. All this in a time when many public lands, like national parks, are being overrun and demand for public recreation space is growing and will continue as the population grows.

While opening private lands for roamers in America seems far-fetched, Ilgunas explains that other countries such as England, Scotland, and Sweden actually have implemented “room to roam” measures.

* In 2000 the English walking rights movement saw Parliament pass the Countryside and Rights of Way Act that opened up 3.4 million acres of privately owned English and Welsh land to walkers.

* In 2003 the Scottish Parliament passed the Land Reform (Scotland) Act opening up virtually all of Scotland to all types of non-motorized outdoor recreation.

According to Ilgunas, “The Nordic countries (Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, and Finland) offer some of the most generous roaming rights in the world. Landowners in Denmark and Iceland have a bit more power to exclude, but Norway, Sweden, and Finland offer responsible access to virtually the whole countryside.”

The Swedish example is especially interesting.

Sweden’s allemansrätten (“every man’s right”) is not written into law as in the other countries but was included in the Swedish Constitution in 1994. It states that, “There shall be access for all to the natural environment in accordance with the right of public access.” This “right” is a tradition going back decades in Swedish culture and is based on guiding principles that Ilgunas summarizes as “Don’t’ disturb. Don’t destroy.”

He writes,

These countries’ roaming systems have their imperfections and their flaws, but they work. Because of these roaming systems, millions of people have access to natural environments. For England, Wales, Scotland and Sweden, access to the countryside is considered a natural right – a right that Americans once had but that we have lost.

Property is still private in these countries, but a “right to roam” is recognized and is popular with landowners and the public.

Next Ilgunas describes how Americans lost this right.

“America, land of the free, has been shut down one statute, one court ruling, and one “No Trespassing” sign at a time.” George Washington could roam the Blue Ridge mountains in 1748. Thoreau could wander around the meadows of Concord. John Muir could walk a thousand miles from Kentucky to the Gulf of Mexico in 1867. But beginning in the late 19th century, commons began to be fenced to keep cattle in or out, and “the rights of property owners began to trump the needs of the local community.” Ilgunas cites court cases that took long steps in “the closing down of America."

Next, he reviews compelling reasons why the right to roam should be reinstated: the contribution it would make to rebuilding social trust; mental and physical benefits of roaming; providing recreation space in an ever more crowded nation “without breaking the bank.”

He contends, questionably in my view, that allowing urban people into the countryside will lead to more sustainable development practices. He is not, he says, arguing for “simply the right to go anywhere we please.” The right represents grander values like “the values of the community over private privilege,” “a country that is trusting, neighborly, welcoming, supportive, united;” a country “whose people are bound to their land and waters, and whose fates are shared.”

Who can argue against measures that promote such values?

Many do when it comes to opening private land, and he reviews and refutes some of the anti-roaming arguments from responses he has received to his advocacy. One is that “Americans are destructive, irresponsible litterbugs.” Another is, “Won’t landowners start to get sued by injured hikers more often?” Others argue that, “Americans are armed to the teeth,” so presumably roamers would run a risk of being shot, and “We should stick to recreation on public land, or just create more public land.”

He offers thoughtful responses to each of these concerns, and follows with thoughts on the long path that might lead to recognition of the right to roam the American land.

As I read Ilgunas’ arguments I appreciated why he started out by warning us readers that what he would argue for is “unlikely right now” and a project perhaps for the 22nd century. At present, the politics of land, especially in the American West, are trending away from his dreams. Yet, as population inevitably grows, his ideas may seem less heretical.

I read a lot about national parks, and of late the issue of crowding has been receiving more and more attention. The time may come when a pressure valve will burst and roamers will simply spill out onto land around public parks and forests. Part of the solution to overcrowding of the “crown jewels” of the National Park System may be to give people more options of where to go to get their nature fixes.

I know personally, from my environmental education work, that there are a multitude of reasons why young people should venture out into the natural world, but they are often hemmed in by lack of access to public land while tracts of private land near homes and schools offer myriad opportunities for adventure and learning. Creating more public lands is often suggested as a way to provide these opportunities, but the likelihood of being able as a people to afford this is fading.

Some of Ilgunas’ ideas trouble me. Is it reasonable, for instance, to suggest that what is possible in small countries like those he cites as examples of the way forward will also be possible in a country as large and geographically diverse as the United States?

If existing public lands are protected and better managed for recreation, might they be sufficient to meet the growing needs for outdoor access he describes? Will the interests of conservation, of water, wildlife, and other “public resources” be served by allowing anyone to wander virtually anywhere?

I fail to see how Ilgunas’ embrace of historian William Cronon’s ideas about wilderness advance his arguments. He calls the National Wilderness Preservation System “fundamentally fake wilderness,” and agrees with Cronon that wilderness is “likely to reinforce environmentally irresponsible behavior.” Nonsense! There is no evidence of this, and the idea that right to roam on private land will somehow lead to greater environmental responsibility and more sustainable development, presumably in some way at the expense of our designated wilderness areas, are great far-fetched leaps. These are just some of the concerns Ilgunas’ ideas raise for me.

Nonetheless, this little book offers much food for thought. Ilgunas may be a dreamer, utopian in his thinking, yet the examples he cites of people in other nations recognizing a right to roam make me think some form of this might not be beyond the pale in the United States. I like his conclusion:

The land belongs not just to future generations of humankind, but to all living things and the ecosystems on which they rely. Let’s not be so fixated on something as small as individual liberty – to exclude and do whatever we wish – when we should be thinking about something far grander and far nobler: the health of the community, the health of the planet, the prosperity of the human race and all our fellow species. There is nothing that convinces me that land should ever wholly and despotically belong to one person.

No doubt this very thought will drive conservatives crazy. They will call it communism. But the property, remember, remains private. This book suggests we can have our private property and share it, too. If this should happen, and walls and fences come down allowing our fellow creatures to roam as well as we, then I’m all for it. 

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Being aware of the British and Scandinavian examples, I have long wished America had similar right to roam laws. I'll never see it happen in my lifetime though.

Yes, the Fox News crowd will have a hissy fit over this one. But to dream....


As, usual, the human animal has it backwards; it's the land that owns us:
"By the sweat of your face You will eat bread, Till you return to the ground, Because from it you were taken; For you are dust, And to dust you shall return." (Genesis 3:19)

Cliven Bundy insists U.S. government can't own land -- no matter who's president
Ryan Bundy: Federal government has no right to administer land
Cliven Bundy's fight against the feds has roots in interpretation of Mormon scripture

The Bundy Family's Odd Mormon Connection, Explained

"Cliven Bundy repeatedly cited his Mormonism to justify his standoff with the United States government in 2014, insisting he has a right to graze cattle on federal land because his Mormon ancestors worked it long before the federal Bureau of Land Management was established."

"If the standoff with the Bundys was wrong, would the Lord have been with us?" Bundy said. "Could those people that stood (with me) without fear and went through that spiritual experience ... have done that without the Lord being there? No, they couldn't."

If he wants to convince the rest of us, who shake our heads at his not being in jail, he might start to justify his position with something other than his faithh.


Most Mormons are very embarrassed by Bundy.

"I'm Captain Moroni, from Utah."  


"That's how one militiaman at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge responded to OPB's Amanda Peacher when she asked for his name."

"That name is not a silly response to deflect responsibility: In many ways, it encapsulates a deeply intertwined anti-federal sentiment mixed with Mormon symbolism. Captain Moroni is a crucial figure in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He's also a heroic figure for anti-federalist extremists."
Also Read:       God Is Not Great

How Religion Poisons Everything

by Christopher Hitchens

"Hitchens frames the argument for a more secular life based on science and reason, in which hell is replaced by the Hubble Telescope's awesome view of the universe, and Moses and the burning bush give way to the beauty and symmetry of the double helix."

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