This Is Our Country. Let’s Walk It. (1 Viewer)

Brother X

caput gerat lupinum
Apr 5, 2015
Eugene, OR

A COUPLE of years ago, I trespassed across America. I’d set out to hike the proposed route of the Keystone XL pipeline, which had been planned to stretch over a thousand miles over the Great Plains, from Alberta, Canada, to the Gulf Coast. To walk the pipe’s route, roads wouldn’t do. I’d have to cross fields, hop barbed-wire fences and camp in cow pastures — much of it on private property.

I’d figured that walking across the heartland would probably be unlawful, unprecedented and a little bit crazy. We Americans, after all, are forbidden from entering most of our private lands. But in some European countries, walking almost wherever you want is not only ordinary but perfectly acceptable.

In Sweden, they call it “allemansrätt.” In Finland, it’s “jokamiehenoikeus.” In Scotland, it’s “the right to roam.” Germany allows walking through privately owned forests, unused meadows and fallow fields. In 2000, England and Wales passed the Countryside and Rights of Way Act, which gave people access to “mountain, moor, heath or down.”

Nordic and Scottish laws are even more generous. The 2003 Scottish Land Reform Act opened up the whole country for a number of pastimes, including mountain biking, horseback riding, canoeing, swimming, sledding, camping and most any activity that does not involve a motorized vehicle, so long as it’s carried out “responsibly.” In Sweden, landowners may be prohibited from putting up fences for the sole purpose of keeping people out. Walkers in many of these places do not have to pay money, ask for permission or obtain permits.

We’re not nearly as welcoming in America. Travel across rural America and you’ll spot “No Trespassing” and “Private Property” signs posted on trees and fence posts everywhere. And even where there aren’t signs, Americans know they don’t have the implicit permission to visit their town’s neighboring woods, fields and coastlines. Long gone are the days when we could, like Henry David Thoreau on the outskirts of his native Concord, Mass., freely saunter “through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements.”

Following the Oil
Ken Ilgunas’s hike route, with some of his encounters and the number of days spent in each province and state.


Might we be better off if we could, like a Scot or a Swede, legally amble over our rolling fields and through our shady woods, rather than have to walk alongside unscenic, noisy and dangerous roads? The organization Smart Growth Americareported that from 2003 to 2012 over 47,000 pedestrians were killed and an estimated 676,000 were injured walking along roads. Our lack of safe and peaceful walking places may also contribute to the nation’s status as one of the more sedentary countries in the world. According to a 2012 study by The Lancet, over 40 percent of Americans don’t get the recommended amount of exercise per week.

If we want to create more safe and scenic walking spaces, we should look to Europe’s roaming laws for ideas on opening up our countryside. But would a European “right to roam” law work in the United States?

Jerry Anderson, a Drake University Law School professor who has studied American and British property law, says that emulating Britain’s right-to-roam laws would be difficult because of the takings clause of our Fifth Amendment, which declares that private property cannot “be taken for public use, without just compensation.”
“It’s not impossible,” said Mr. Anderson. “You would have to compensate the landowners, and then the question would be, ‘How much compensation is a public right of access worth?’ ”

The amount of compensation is difficult to determine because Britain and other countries with roaming laws don’t have anything like our takings clause. In Britain, landowners were not compensated when their exclusionary rights were compromised by roaming laws. Laws like those in England, Wales and Scotland would probably be declared unconstitutional here.

America, though, started off with an expansive set of roaming rights and traditions. Brian Sawers, a visiting scholar at Emory University School of Law, says that the right to roam — specifically the right to hunt on private, unenclosed land — was cherished by early Americans because it distinguished them from the English, whose aristocracy held exclusive hunting rights and owned the great majority of the country.


The right to roam “was something we had and lost,” said Mr. Sawers.

Roaming rights began to erode in the late 19th century, according to Mr. Sawers. In the South, states passed trespassing laws for racial reasons, seeking to keep blacks from hunting and fishing so as to starve them into submission. Elsewhere, wealthy landowners of the Gilded Era became concerned with game populations, and trespassing and hunting laws were passed to restrict immigrants, he said.

In 1922, the Supreme Court in McKee v. Gratz ruled that in areas where there is a “common understanding,” the public may be permitted to hunt, fish and travel unenclosed land. However, this right is revoked the second the landowner posts a “No Trespassing” sign, according to Mr. Anderson. This is referred to as a landowner’s “right to exclude,” which, over the years, has grown only more powerful and absolute in a series of Supreme Court decisions.

But our understanding of property and our unquestioned devotion to the right to exclude may need to be reconsidered in an age when America is increasingly characterized by growing populations, sprawling cities and suburbs, and far less green space.

According to the Department of Agriculture, from 1982 to 2007, 41 million acres of American forest and farmland were developed, roughly the size of Wisconsin. A report by the Forest Service predicts that the urban and developed area in the country will increase by between 41 percent and 77 percent by 2060, which means that as many as 69 million acres of additional farm, range and forest land could be developed, about the size of Colorado.

While by my count about 28 percent of the United States is publicly owned and thus potentially good roaming land (in the form of national parks, national forests, Bureau of Land Management property, as well as state parks and recreation areas), much of this land is inaccessible to people longing for a morning stroll from their front door. By my count, the five states with the highest percentages of land owned by the state and federal government — Nevada, Utah, Alaska, Idaho and Oregon — have more than half of the public land in the nation, but only about 2 percent of the population.

The far more densely populated states on the East Coast — say the original 13 colonies plus the District of Columbia — have about 30 percent of the nation’s population but only a tiny percentage of its public land. And several Midwestern states are almost entirely owned by private landowners. About 1 percent of Kansas and Iowa, for instance, is owned by the state and federal government.


Pipeline being laid in Texas.
Even if a national right to roam law is unlikely, there are ways that state governments can create better green and coastal walking spaces now. TheSurfrider Foundation, a nonprofit that advocates better beach access, reports that several states, including Maine, Massachusetts and Virginia, have favored the interests of beachfront property owners by limiting public access to shorelines. Hawaii and Oregon, on the other hand, have granted generous public access to their coasts.

Some American landowners might bristle at the thought of walkers invading their privacy. But right to roam laws are not free-for-alls for walkers. In Sweden, walkers are required to stay at least 65 yards from homes and could be sentenced to as many as four years in jail for destroying property. Scotland’s right to roam does not give a right to hunt, shoot or fish.

These laws are often friendly to landowners because, under many circumstances, landowners are given immunity from suit if the walker has an accident resulting from natural features of the landscape on the landowner’s property. In the United States, landowners can be held responsible if someone gets hurt on their property. Our neighbors’ “No Trespassing” signs haven’t all been posted to serve as unfriendly messages. Often, they’re legal suits of armor.
We sell all kinds of other stuff in our Etsy store!

Deleted member 125

I closed my account
good read, thanks for posting.


Dec 6, 2014
North Rim, AZ
I've always wanted to do something like that. Much better views than walking along the road. Did you run into any trouble along the way?

Brother X

caput gerat lupinum
Apr 5, 2015
Eugene, OR
I've always wanted to do something like that. Much better views than walking along the road. Did you run into any trouble along the way?

I didn't write the article, but I do a lot of walking. For example, I've walked the "unofficial" trial from San Diego to Portland. It's unofficial because you will be walking across both private and public land and doing a lot of stealth camping. The only problem I encountered was someone with a loudspeaker on their house yelling at me to get off of their private beach. LOL There's an unofficial guide to walking the California part here, in case anyone is interested, and links to the maps/books:
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Apr 6, 2013
The only problem I encountered was someone with a loudspeaker on their house yelling at me to get off of their private beach.

Silly humans think they own this planet.

I curse you bastards and your "private" beaches.
May Poseidon Rise From the DEEP and send the awesome might fury of the Sea Crashing down upon you; bringing silence to your selfish ignorant ways!


Jan 6, 2016
Marietta, GA
See the part of the problem with America is we have private property rights but with strings attached. It'd be cool for anyone harmless to go about roaming, trust me it's not about fear. I've done plenty of personal roaming and wandering through all kinds of properties growing up and even now with abandoned exploration and urban exploring. The problem comes from the fact landowners are super liable for anything that happens to you on their land whether they had a hand in it or not, yet despite that the law still says it's perfectly legal for them to shoot trespassers... I think that's completely over the top.

I'm sure the drug war hasn't helped make it any better... "Omg they're roaming around muling drugs across Canada"


Nov 7, 2012
I plan on taking advantage of the allemansratt when i get to scandinavia. such an essential right to have and it's silly americans have to feel afraid of wandering in the woods.

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