This Land Is Whose Land?

When do private property rights impinge on public welfare and become public issues? Timothy Collins says when it comes to land mismanagement, all the time.

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On days off, I take great pleasure in “chasing the seasons” across my larger backyard of western Illinois, and occasionally, eastern Iowa and northeastern Missouri. The backroads landscape is truly beautiful in the upper Midwest, delicious, a place you can grow to love.

Unfortunately, too many farmers and landowners don’t seem to care about their land. I see hogs and cattle wallowing not only in smaller watercourses, but in larger ones. Animals wear away the grass, causing soil erosion and spilling their urine and manure (euphemistically called “nutrients” in some livestock management literature) directly into the streams where they wallow.

I see that some landowners tear trees down along fence lines and watercourses. This practice opens the soil to wind erosion, lowers the capacity of waterway buffers to filter out agrichemicals, and reduces wildlife habitat.

There’s plowing mud in the rush to get the crops in. This year, heavy rains and cool weather washed out the earliest plantings, a waste of nonrenewable fuels and time.

Others plow steep slopes, causing soil erosion that pollutes streams with silt and chemicals.

Wooded areas have been mismanaged by allowing grazing and not improving tree stands that could increase farm profits through timber, biomass, or hunting and recreation.

Some  host junkyards, with abandoned trucks, cars, farm equipment, and other industrial flotsam and jetsam.

Timothy Collins
Cattle graze in puny stand of trees in the La Moine River Valley of Western Illinois.

These individual actions add up to larger-scale pollution that damages our soil, water, and air. Coupled with commonly accepted but widespread agricultural practices, they cause significant damage to watersheds and soil fertility.

Of course, many farmers do their best under difficult circumstances and mean well. But we need to be asking: What can be done better, with less impact on the environment?

Progressive-era Republican Theodore Roosevelt, in 1910, shortly after the end of his presidency, recognized the core tension between conservation and private property ownership. Laying intellectual groundwork for naturalist, forester, and conservationist Aldo Leopold and other environmentalists, Roosevelt clearly linked the health of the local environment and the quality of country life. Ownership of private property entailed responsibilities for the common good:

We are now trying to preserve, not for exploitation by individuals, but for the permanent benefit of the whole people, the waters and the forests, and we are doing this primarily as a means of adding to the fertility of the soil; although in each case there is a great secondary use both of the water and of the forests for commercial and industrial purposes. 

Nowadays, it is incredibly difficult to argue against the sacred character that so many attach to private property. Yet, we need to keep matters in perspective. Constitutional police powers of “we the people” are in place for governments to protect the public health, safety, and well-being of  “us, the people.” This was Roosevelt’s point. On the other hand, private property rights advocates, often with backing from the courts, are concerned about issues of search and seizure, among other things.

Over the past several decades, the environmental and health effects of both public and private sector decision-making have become battlegrounds. In our current atmosphere, some view any government interference in property rights as intrusive. Unfortunately, the you-can’t-tell-me-what-to-do-with-my-land individuals operate – intentionally or not – on the premise that the public welfare be damned. From this perspective, the highly degraded and possibly dying Chesapeake Bay, sections of the Gulf of Mexico, and all of the other larger and smaller waterways that are the basis of our existence mean less than a property owner’s rights. The land must be productive to create individual wealth. In fact, it’s all too easy to use the ecosystem as a sewer, letting nature and the government (the rest of us) pay the cost of the cleanup.

Roosevelt weeps.

Rural-urban interconnections of health and food safety seem to be part of the property rights pattern, too. Some farmers are actively resisting questions about the hows and whys of food production that concern animal welfare, food quality, and the environment. According to the New York Times, at least three states – Iowa, Florida, and Minnesota – may make undercover investigations of large-scale farms illegal. Farmers seeking these measures in the name of their private property rights claim that what they do is nobody’s business. They want state legislatures to make it illegal for animal rights activists to photograph potential animal abuse.

Dr. Robert Diaz of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science created a map of dead zones throughout the world, including the United States. According to scientists, agricultural runoff is a major contributor to the problem in most cases.

Agriculture has moved far beyond the agrarian myth of the independent yeoman farmer. Today’s agribusiness is a private activity done in the name of public interests and the public good with massive public funding. Food is a necessity, and producing it has widespread environmental and social impacts in a wider political economy. The impacts of destructive and problematic local practices extend far beyond the abuses I see in my backroads meanderings, into the arenas of food production, processing, and handling, and into the global environment,.

Citizens have a right to know how food is produced, including the treatment of animals. They also have a right to know about pollution associated with agriculture. Food quality and agricultural processes affect all of us as consumers, not only the producers driven by the necessity of seeking profits to assure the survival of their families and businesses.

The very idea of farm secrecy is ominous, a threat to norms of public trust. Operating in secret also betrays the huge public investments in this country’s farms. A few questions: Could passage of farm privacy laws set a precedent that will move beyond investigations and photos by animal rights activists? Could the laws let landowners cover up other illegal or potentially illegal abuses? What about flagrant pollution or waste dumping? Cockfighting?  Growing marijuana or producing methamphetamines?

On a more personal note: All of this makes me wonder if the day could come when I will no longer be able to pursue my passion of photographing rural landscapes, whether those lands are used well or badly. Do I have something to be afraid of as I drive across the countryside?

Are we approaching a time when this land may not be our land after all?

Timothy Collins is assistant director of the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University in Macomb. Opinions expressed here are his and his alone.

 

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