Environmental Almanac | A different perspective on property


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For all of the lip service our culture pays to thinking outside the box, most of us respond to challenges in a limited, predictable set of ways.

Even when confronted with the enormous disruptions to biodiversity and human life promised by climate change within this century, we tend to think small.

We endeavor to reduce our personal carbon footprint, we support moderate political change and, above all perhaps, we hope that someone, somewhere is devising new technologies that will enable us to continue living in the future as we have in the past.

In this way, Ken Ilgunas is not like us.

When in 2011 he and a friend, whom he met working in the kitchen of a camp for tar sands oil workers in Deadhorse, Alaska, pondered their duty as citizens of the Earth, they ran through the usual list of responses (and beyond) and then cooked up an entirely different option — to hike the path of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline.

As the setting for the first-ever, large-scale fight over a project because of climate change, the Keystone XL represented for Ilgunas a historic battleground, worth knowing about in its own right and useful for drawing attention to the issue that dwarfs all others in fact, if not in public consciousness.

Ultimately, his friend couldn't undertake the trip, but Ilgunas followed through on the idea and did it solo, beginning in September 2012 and finishing in February 2013. In that time, he hiked through eight states and provinces and covered 1,900 miles.

I'll not retell Igunas' story here because he tells it himself in the 2016 book, "Trespassing Across America: One Man's Epic, Never-Done-Before (and Sort of Illegal) Hike across the Heartland"— a book I encourage you to read.

While in many ways Ilgunas' experiences resemble those of other people who have undertaken arduous, long-distance, solo hikes and written about them, his journey differed from theirs in a fundamental way: He hiked a route no one had ever taken before, through fields and over fences, much of the time crossing private land without permission. He was trespassing.

While crossing private land without permission was the only way for Ilgunas to follow the proposed Keystone XL route, he has more recently articulated a powerful case for Americans to reclaim the right to do that far more widely in the book "This Land is Our Land: How We Lost the Right to Roam and How to Take It Back."

Is Ken Ilgunas unlike us — out of step — in thinking we should be able to walk through a privately owned woodland or across a fallow field or pasture without asking permission? He acknowledges that contemporary Americans would generally think so, steeped as we are in an absolute and exclusionary view of private property.

In that, however, he argues it's our laws and customs that are out of step. We're out of step with much of Europe, he explains, where many countries ensure wide access to responsible recreation on private land — a point that may or may not matter to many Midwesterners.

More importantly, he explains, in clear and convincing detail, we are radically out of step with our own past in the way we conceive of private property, citing, among other things, the writings of famous scientific and literary roamers (Thoreau, Muir, Cather and Leopold among them) and the history of laws enacted in the south to deny African-Americans access to fish and game after the Civil War.

To our shame, Ilgunas also details the way our current conception of private property allows for the further curtailment of public freedom from one decade to the next.

All of this is to say that if you can get to campus on Wednesday, you can expect a lively lunch, since Ken Ilgunas will be there to talk in a public lecture about ideas and experiences from both of the books I've mentioned.

Admission to the lecture is free and will take place from noon to 1 p.m. in Latzer Hall at the University YMCA. You're welcome to bring your own lunch or purchase a delicious meal at the Y Thai and Chinese Eatery.

Rob Kanter is a clinical associate professor with the UI School of Earth, Society and Environment. You can reach him via email at rkanter@illinois.edu.