The outdoors are the key to restoring trust in and within our society.
Let me explain what I mean. Around the world and in the United States, trust in institutions is crumbling. Local, state, and federal authorities are no longer trusted, and never mind the media – long (but no longer) held up as an institution supporting the objective truth. What institutions are left for us to believe in, to unite within, and to work to improve?
Trust can and should forged through common interest in conserving our wild places during these dividing times. I first started thinking about this issue when I moved to Norway, but upon reflection, I think the solution can work in my homeland of the United States as well.
Being from the US, where private property is and has been enshrined as sacred since the country’s inception, I had a hard time believing in the concept of allemansretten when I first came to Norway. This concept, legally enshrined and roughly translated as “freedom to roam,” means that most land in the country is public – free for hiking, camping, fishing, picking berries and all sorts of activities.
Norwegians are very proud of this tradition. The clip below is an advertisement for allemansretten, wherein an unknowing camper who was unaware of the law slept outside without needing to. Basically, as long as you are a decent distance (150 meters) from anyone’s house, you’re allowed to pitch a tent for up to three days, no questions asked.
I wrote a post a few years ago about the concept of friluftsliv, which is another deeply-rooted concept emphasizing the importance of getting outside and enjoying nature. Perhaps the most striking thing about the Norwegians’ enthusiasm for this “open air life” is the fact that they want to share it with any and everyone, and further that this is almost completely free.
For example, here in Oslo the Skiforengingen (Norwegian Skiing Association) grooms and maintains miles of cross-country ski trails (see below), paid for by members of the organization, for all to enjoy at no cost.
Another example is the Norwegian Trekking Association (DNT), an organization that operates and maintains trails and about 500 cabins all over Norway. Membership to this organization is inexpensive and allows you to cheaply purchase a generic key that can be used to unlock almost all of the cabins. Luckily, I’ve had the chance to stay at several of these cabins during my time here – most have which have been unstaffed. Every time I’ve stayed in one, everything has been spotless, organized, and cleaned. Many of the cabins have pantries stocked with food for hungry hikers, which can be paid for by filling out a form, along with information about how long you stayed and the number of people in your party. Since nobody is there to check you in or out, DNT relies on folks honoring the conventions surrounding the cabins and actually (and truthfully) filling out logistical and payment information. In some of the cabins, I’ve seen a helpful sign on the wall with a phone number you can text to pay for your visit later, on the off-chance that you forgot to pay before. I stayed in a DNT cabin in Dovrefjell National Park with a few friends in late October (pictured below and at the very top), and we filled out a payment form that was only just received and billed to us a few weeks ago. We didn’t see a single soul on that trip, and we could have very easily saved our kroner by “forgetting” to pay, or by borrowing one of the DNT keys from a friend.
The cynic in me wonders how this system exists and survives abuse.
What keeps people from turning up, taking a bunch of food, and leaving the place a mess? Is this case limited to Norway, long touted as a paradise of social cohesion and harmony?
I think the answer to the last question is no. It’s very easy to think that Norway’s model cannot be replicated, whether that’s because its population (5 million) is easily manageable or because they have a (relatively) homogenous population that may make such honors systems and social cohesion easier to maintain.
Bringing it back home
But back to my original question – let’s take a look at the United States. Are the rules governing the National Park System really that different? Aren’t the LNT (suspiciously similar to DNT) Principles just a slightly different form of this system, bent on maintaining public lands and spaces for all to enjoy? There are written (and, more importantly, unwritten) forms of trail etiquette that are used all over the US, without anyone batting an eye. The closest national park to my home, the Great Smoky Mountains, is free to all and receives about twice as many visitors per year as Norway has in the whole country. Sure, budgets are extremely strained, the Parks are understaffed, and abuses occur, but what keeps “America’s best idea” from splintering or falling apart?
Having studied political science, I think that institutions are the best answer. The National Park System, allemansretten, and even friluftsliv are all institutions that we buy into. By using these cabins or trails or parks without abusing them and instead maintaining them for others to enjoy, we are buying into and strengthening institutions that send a message – a message saying that we can overcome our selfish, personal interests in the name of the common good and common welfare. These are institutions that we all benefit from – institutions that bind us together through ties of national pride, mutual love and enthusiasm for the outdoors, or even a sense of duty to others.
To sum it up:
The outdoors are bipartisan spaces. Despite their differences, hunters and hikers alike agree that we need wild lands and wild spaces, and that these should be preserved for future generations. In an increasingly polarizing political climate, perhaps the outdoor arena is one that could help maintain and repair our delicate social fabric.
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