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Feature Article - November 3, 2005

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Feature Article

November 3, 2005

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ArchiveImage GalleryAlgonquin Land Claims

Gray MerriamLegaleseGeneral information and opinion on legal topics by Rural Legal ServicesNature Reflectionsby Jean GriffinNight Skiesby Leo Enright

This Land is our Land, this Land is your Land -- Which?

by Gray Merriam

When Woody Guthrie wrote his song “This Land is Your Land” his concern was that all the people should have some say in what happened on the land – a socialistic view. Now we see and hear “This Land is Our Land”. Is this the same philosophy? Maybe ‘Yes’, maybe ‘No’.


Landowners following the slogan “This Land is Our Land” emphasize the “Our”, in objection to the government regulating their use of the land on which they pay taxes. They argue that ownership should be more absolute than allowed under government regulation. Essentially the argument is: if I own it (or rent it) and pay the mortgage and the taxes, I should be able to use this land as I, the owner, see fit. Not a socialistic view. Maybe it is just an anti-bureaucratic view, not a capitalistic view.

But the governments are supposed to represent the people and their wishes. Theoretically, a democratically elected set of governors are just the people’s representatives looking out for the welfare of the people. If that is not working, then perhaps the landowners should have a slogan about proper representation, not about absolute control of THEIR land.

Is it really their land to do with as they wish? What if the price of topsoil became very high so that it was more profitable to export your topsoil than to grow crops and take your chance on the markets? Under absolute ownership there would be nothing to stop the excavations right down to bedrock. One generation of landowners would have high short-term profits. The topography, streams and lakes would all be rearranged and the landscape would take on a new aesthetic quality. Probably the majority of the people would not be pleased.

That is why the people chose long ago to have the governments regulate what we do on the land. We regulate what we do to the column of air over our land. Over time, as society calls for them, regulations have been put in place to prevent comparable damage to various components of that complex column that we simply call 'the land'. Where we live includes the column of air above, living biota on the surface, the surface water, the soil, the ground water and the bedrock that together make up ‘Our’ and ‘Your’ ‘land’.

So we all live with some balance between the freedom gained by owning land and the regulation of how we use that land so that it will still be part of a functional system after we have passed through it. And that is exactly what happens. We are just passing through both while living and after that too. We do not have absolute ownership and the degree to which we can do as we wish depends on the values that society places on the consequences of our actions. Social values activated through democracy give us guidelines for stewardship of THE land. Not Ours. Not Yours.

As social mores and better understanding of the processes that maintain ecosystems develop and evolve, we are all given greater loads of responsibility for the land. Not just farmers and the industries along chemical row but also the builders and buyers in suburbia and the producers of urban garbage. Just being dislocated a step or two from where the damage actually happens does not break the chain of moral responsibility.

But society has to give reasonable guidelines. What is reasonable is determined by social and political give and take. If a person has been farming land for many years, we have decided that it is not reasonable for some group of suburbanites to move in next door and punish the farmer for the normal smells of farming. Guidelines change with social and cultural development and with increasing knowledge and shifting values. So we also now expect that farmer to carry on his way of life so that his activities do not let excess nutrients destroy the ecological processes of the waterways or the airways. Balance.

When society increases the priority on some guideline, it would be unreasonable to expect instant response regardless of costs. Society and its government regulators should not expect elements of our culture to remake themselves in a short time when they have evolved into their present state over several generations. And they should not expect the remake to happen regardless of costs. If society values the change they advocate, they should expect to supply some of the costs. After all, if some activity, such as piling sawdust outside small lumber mills has been the accepted practice for 3 or 4 generations, why expect the practice to be replaced quickly in an economically marginal enterprise. Balance is needed among established cultural practices, traditional ways of making a living, and new knowledge of the resulting damages that have been historically overlooked.

Similarly, if some cultural or business component of our society causes changes that affect another social group, guidelines may need to be changed or at least given flexibility. White-tailed deer have reached pest levels in some croplands as a result of historic lumbering followed by secondary forest regrowth, combined with changing farming practices such as increases in corn and soybean crops, changing climate, interacting with increasing urban growth and associated attitudes. These changes eventually combined to produce threshold increases in deer that required flexibility of regulatory agencies that was slow to come. Brittle bureaucracies are no match for complex socio-economic changes that are not gradual but instead often hit thresholds of sudden, even precipitous change. Balance between firm, enforced guidelines and responsiveness to change is required.

But response has to be balanced. Not just response to politically intense lobbying. No one person or few groups should expect instant changes in guidelines or regulations simply because it makes sense from their particular perspective. The complex that we call society has to work out their combined view and that has to be balanced, too. For too long, that societal view has been influenced by simplistic economic notions such the Gross National Product. Such measures do not reflect what is good for society. The GNP includes such things as increased flow of money into health care and money spent to repair damages from catastrophic natural disasters. Until we have economic measures that include what is good for society and subtract, as a cost, what is damaging to society and to the land, we must work to improve our democratic process for providing guidelines that give us all balance. “This Way of Life is Our Way of Life: Preserve it Government”, might be a more useful slogan.

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