Monday, April 28, 2014

“What If It Were Our Property?”

While obviously peeved, a forester posted a list of observations recently.  I stepped on some toes, no doubt, but his pejoratives and condescension aside, he makes some valid points.

To my point about why residents here seemed stunned rather than mad about some massive clear cutting of urban forest canopy, he speculates that “landowners aren’t mad because it’s their own [someone else’s] damn land.”

Maybe, but doubtful, based on public opinion surveys.

I am not just talking about queries that show how passionately and overwhelmingly Durham residents feel about tree canopy as one of the reasons they love living here.

Interestingly, another community I recently wrote about that had surveyed residents in depth about trees, probed much further.

Asked if they would choose tree preservation or replanting over allowing individuals property owners to remove trees, by 4-1 residents there chose preservation.

More revealing though, when asked if they favored tree preservation regulations even if they had the opportunity to develop their land, they agreed by nearly 3-to-1, especially the preservation of groves.Urban Forest View - Durham, NC

By an even greater margin, residents objected to leaving decisions to preserve trees to developers.

These would be useful questions to inform Durham resident views about urban forest policies which, by the definition of United States Forest Service researchers and experts, includes not only public, but private land, and rural as well as within city limits.

The answers would vary, I suspect, community by community across North Carolina as they do regarding roadside billboards, which are opposed statewide.

A hint of statewide public opinion regarding tree canopy preservation on private land is found in a poll taken when out-of-state billboard companies successfully lobbied lawmakers here to double the amount of public roadside forest they could cut based on the argument that billboards are private property.

More than 8-in-10 North Carolinians opposed cutting more trees along roadsides even in view of the claim of private property.

From the surveys I’ve read, I’ll bet residents in communities across the nation overwhelmingly believe trees are important to every community’s character and desirability as a place to live or visit.

Foresters by nature and training are utilitarians, much as I was growing up in the Rockies.  This is the conservation philosophy behind the national forest preservation policies of Republican President Theodore Roosevelt and Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Any argument that private property rights give someone the right to do whatever they want gave way in the 1800s to the “liberty-harm principle,” meaning that the liberty of individuals to do whatever they like is limited when harming others.

Initially it was felt that if society agreed to the harm, it was okay.  Evidence that North Carolinians don’t agree is adoption of the constitutional amendment know as the North Carolina Bill of Rights passed by 7-to-1 in 1971.

Those currently controlling high office here are often called “regressives” because ignoring the constitution, they want to take the state back to before that amendment while avoiding any vote to repeal, regardless of polls showing North Carolinian oppose this reversal.

Obviously not all North Carolinians.

Private property are “fightin’ words” in a state initially populated by immigrants from the border lands between Scotland and England, where their ancestral commons had been confiscated and fenced off beginning in the 16th century.

In his books about each of the first two Industrial Revolutions and the shift to another now underway, Jeremy Rifkin reminds us that the notion of private property was initially instituted by the rich against the poor:

“The enclosures movement and the market economy that ensued changed the very nature of property relations from conditional rights to exclusive ownership.”

These immigrants during the first half of the 18th century had only one objective in mind, a piece of property to own.

But during subsequent formation of the United States and up to 1840 when the “enclosures movement” concluded, there is repeated evidence that many Americans still thought of property relations as conditional.

Long before that, all of my ancestors began hopscotching west from South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Delaware, New York and Massachusetts, and finally after 1847, to what I affectionately call the Meridian of my DNA along the western slopes of the Rocky Mountains.

Many moves along the way were in search of land.  Even the ancestral ranch where I was born and spent my early years along the Idaho side of the Tetons came about when one of my great-great grandfathers found a place further north where his children could homestead.

Along the Rockies, my ancestors experimented with different ways of holding property including some in common.  They embraced conditional property rights because the restorationist Christian religion which they joined saw ownership as temporary and responsibility for stewardship as eternal.

They viewed land ownership as a variation of what the ancients called the “Great Chain of Being,” an ecological worldview adopted by the Romans from St. Augustine and brought forward during the Renaissance.

It ties responsibilities and obligations above and below to a pyramid including resources such as minerals, water, land and plant life.

Perverted by the time of the Enlightenment to justify subjugation, purer forms had made it to America with early colonists such as Puritans and Quakers and other Christians groups.

It was transformed during the Enlightenment to ethics.

Without knowing it or linking it to the Creator, many today use this hierarchy to encourage sustainability, while others use it to justify exploitation to varying degrees.  It remains, among the most religious and those with no religious affiliation, at the crux of what differentiates our feelings toward the environment.

Views of scarcity also differ such as the one described a few days ago in an op-ed by Matt Ridley, with emphasis on a view popular with readers of the Wall Street Journal, and I suspect, with the reader whose comments I posted at the beginning of this blog.

Many such as me see tree canopy at risk and the negative effects of their loss apparent in the findings of economists and ecologists and especially the growing fusion-field of environmental economics.

Others see deforestation, climate change and coastal flooding as inevitable and place their faith in some future technological innovation that somehow make forest preservation efforts unnecessary.

Forested areas to them will be sustained in parks, along streets and in state and national preserves or on private property where preservation is valued.

New research shows that those who engage in tree-planting today tend to be educated people who already have trees, a cohort I assume that also includes many foresters, including those who otherwise view urban forests only as a commodity.

I tend to be more persuaded by Rifkin’s most recent book and the transformation underway that he calls the Third Industrial Revolution.  He provides evidence that the Internet will soon revolutionize energy, agriculture and logistics the way it has communications.

All of this may take pressure off forests and allow them to re-multiply and diversify.  Billions and billions of square feet of vacant suburban commercial space will allow communities the opportunity to convert them back into tree groves for ecosystem services and quality of place.

I guess we’ll see, but by the time my grandsons are in their prime, I’ll bet the tension between forest preservationists and “it’s my land and I’ll clear cut if I please,” will dissipate. It takes 20-40 years to reach a tipping point for an Industrial Revolutions.

We’re in year six but you can already detect that as margins reach near zero, groups are increasingly both dissatisfied with uneven and insipid government management and the desecration resulting from the private monopoly of resources created by privatization.

A movement is back to the hybrid private/commons approach that has thrived for hundreds of years in parts of the free world and practiced by my ancestors along the Rockies.

Until then, the tension over trees may increase, especially on the half of all U.S. forest canopy and an even greater proportion of urban forest that is on private property.

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