For many nature lovers, the return to normal isn’t good enough. As in many other places in the United States, the parks draw crowds and can be distant, the car-dependent cities are often unwalkable and much of the countryside is off-limits. America has nature in abundance, but it isn’t all that much more accessible than it was when parks were closed a month ago.
Here in the rolling foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, where I’m waiting out the pandemic at a friend’s home in Stokes County, property owners long ago painted purple rings around trees — to mark property boundaries and warn off walkers — and some have sadistic signs warning, “Trespassers will be shot. Survivors will be shot again.” Country roads often have narrow shoulders and short sight lines. But venture into the fields or woods alongside them and (assuming no one’s serious about the shooting) you risk a $200 trespassing fine and even a jail sentence.
About 90 percent of the state of North Carolina is privately owned by people who — except where there are rights of way and easements — have the power to exclude. But I don’t mean to pick on North Carolina. Draconian trespass laws in all states prevent Americans from exploring their local woods, fields and waters.
Contrast that with Scotland, where I live but to which I can’t return at the moment. There, hikers are allowed to responsibly walk over private property and owners are prohibited from putting up unnecessary “no trespassing” signs. You can hike, camp and enjoy nature virtually anywhere, as long as you don’t make a mess, disturb wildlife, invade someone’s privacy or disrupt economic activity.
What’s behind the difference? In Scotland, as well as elsewhere in Europe, private property is thought of in less absolute terms than it is in the United States. Of course property is still owned by individuals, but it’s also seen at least partly as a commons.
In 2000, England and Wales passed the Countryside and Rights of Way Act, which opened up privately owned mountains, moors, heaths and downs to the public for walking and picnicking. In 2009, another act opened up all 2,700 miles of English coastline.
The Nordic countries offer even more generous roaming rights. Allemansrätten (“every man’s right”) is in the Swedish Constitution, guaranteeing the right to camp, swim, build campfires and gather wild produce, such as flowers, mushrooms, and berries. Similar rights, whether formalized by law or accepted as historic custom, exist in Central Europe and the Baltics.
Now, covid-19 has underscored the value of roaming rights. In Sweden, 80 to 90 percent of the country’s land mass is open for responsible recreation, says Klas Sandell, a professor of human geography at Karlstad University, whose calculation considers off-limits developed areas, agricultural lands and conservation zones. In the United States, I calculate that a little more than a quarter of the country is theoretically roamable. That sounds like plenty of space, but the great bulk of these places — mainly federal and state public lands — are either crowded (such as our heavily trafficked national parks), inaccessible or in sparsely populated Western states and Alaska.
Time spent in nature is good for our physical health. Japanese researchers have discovered that a “forest bath,” which is essentially time spent in a forest, reduces blood pressure and levels of stress hormones. Nature is good for our mental health, too. Nils Hallberg, one of two people working exclusively for Sweden’s right to roam within the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency, said that “green prescriptions,” in which doctors prescribe visits to nature to their patients, are becoming increasingly common.
Because of the coronavirus, we are rediscovering our backyards and neighborhoods. But as the need for social distancing continues, many will begin to feel stir-crazy in the same pedestrian-unfriendly sprawl, on the same dangerous country roads and around the same dull cul-de-sacs. A more evolved understanding of private property will help us feel healthier, freer, more equal and more connected to our communities and local environments. It’ll help us get out of the house in good times and bad.
A crisis gives us an opportunity to rethink how we normally do things. An American right to roam is just what the doctor would order.