Public access to private land is taken for granted. For several days along the Superior Hiking Trail in Minnesota prompted a strong sensation of enjoying the kindness of strangers. Trail signs reminded me to respect the property rights of those permitting the trail corridor to traverse their land, and other signs clearly marked the NO TRESPASSING boundaries. With one exception this permissive access was granted anonymously. The land owners likely live nearby, but we walkers don’t know who the are. The one exception was a tribute to landowner Sarah Ellen Jaeger, who not only granted permissive access, but put her land in a trust.
While we in the USA are blessed with lots of public lands for trails, we are also often dependent on the kindness of private land owners who grant rights of way for trails. Musing on this, Thomas Jefferson’s metaphor came to mind:
He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me.
As I reflected on our founding father’s notions about sharing intellectual property, I also realized the limits of the metaphor. When a few hikers or bikers damage a trail, access to private land is compromised by their offensive footprints.
When landowners get fed up with ongoing disrespectful behaviors on the trail (e.g. littering, trespassing, camping, and lighting fires), they sometimes rescind the permissive access to the trail corridor.
As a result, trails must be re-routed at great effort and expense. Fortunately rescinding of access happens very infrequently.
In the USA under “permissive access” to private property: all the private land owner has to do to bar others is to post a NO TRESPASSING sign. In some other nations traditional rights of way across private land are protected and “right to roam” legislation guarantees free trail access for the public.
It is easy to bemoan what we don’t have in terms of access rights to private land, and I agree with these arguments. But as I walked the SHT I was overcome with gratitude for what we do have: thousands of anonymous land owners who willingly grant public access to their land because they believe in the importance of trails and in sharing their woods, rocks, trees and vistas.
It was a special pleasure to see one special land owner memorialized on the trail. Thank you Sarah Ellen Jaeger and all the other generous owners of private land who allow us to walk.