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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Yes Trespassing

Air Date: Week of

You won’t run across a ‘Keep Out’ sign in Sweden; even private property there is open for general use. Linda Anderson explores the Swedish “Right of Public Access.”


(Partial funding for this story came from the American-Scandinavian Foundation.)

TOOMEY: It's Living on Earth. I'm Diane Toomey.

No Trespassing signs are a common sight in the United States. Bold, red, yellow, or orange posted notices divert people away from private property. But in Sweden you'll never see a No Trespassing sign. Instead, there's an open invitation to use the land, and that includes private property. As Linda Anderson explains, it's all part of Sweden's heritage of access to the countryside.

(Footfalls, voices, berries spilling into a wooden bucket)

ANDERSON: In northern Sweden, the lingonberries are ripe, and Swedes who love this tart, red berry make pilgrimages to find them.

(More spilling)

ANDERSON: Heli Parkkila and her boyfriend have just driven eight hours from Stockholm. And now, buckets in hand, they search the woods until they find a spot so loaded with lingonberries they cover the ground like thousands of spilled rubies.

(More spilling)

ANDERSON: Heli has no idea whose property this is. And as she fills her buckets, she says it doesn't matter.

PARKKILA: We have something really special here. And you can just walk around in the woods and pick berries and mushrooms and whatever you want to.


ANDERSON: In Sweden, anyone can enjoy the pleasures of the countryside. It's an ancient entitlement known as Allemansratten, or the right of public access.

ZETTERSEN: This is not a law. This is a custom.

ANDERSON: Gunnar Zettersen is with the natural resources department at Sweden's Environmental Protection Agency.

ZETTERSEN: The Swedish Allemansratten is a custom from older days, and it's not written in the law. So you can't go to the law book and read exactly what is the possibilities, was it right or wrong?

ANDERSON: Mr. Zettersen says the custom began hundreds of years ago. If people traveling the countryside were in need of collecting food to survive or feeding their horses, access to the land was theirs.

ZETTERSEN: But nowadays, of course, people don't have to go on others' property for survival any more. Now it's more for enjoyment, for recreation.

ANDERSON: As long as you don't disturb or destroy property, Gunnar Zettersen says you may roam freely in any woods, fields, or beaches. You may swim and boat anywhere if you keep a respectful distance from dwellings. And as long as you don't interfere with farming, you may pitch a tent for a day or two. Horseback riding is allowed, and well-behaved pets are welcome. But no motorized vehicles, and no hunting without permission. You may not cut down trees or harvest nuts, but you may collect flowers, mushrooms, and, like Heli Parkkila, berries.

(Berries spill into a bucket)

PARKKILA: When I come home I think I'm going to make some ja. It's like a sauce. And you eat it with meatballs and potatoes. It's really good.

(Spilling continues)

ANDERSON: Heli could even sell the berries if she wished. And guides can bring customers onto private land to birdwatch, canoe, or hike. Since there are no laws to govern Allemansratten, Gunnar Zettersen says its existence is dependent on personal judgment.

ZETTERSEN: You have to have consideration, and think about how should I like people coming to my property? You are a guest in the nature. You are a guest to the animals and the human beings' property. You don't disturb and you don't spoil anything, and be careful.

ANDERSON: On occasion, disputes do arise and must be settled in court. But Mr. Zettersen says a recent study by the Swedish EPA found destructive behavior rare. And while some landowners try to keep travelers off their property, most, like Ingalill Axelsson, recognize their unique responsibility.

AXELSSON: [Speaks in Swedish]

TRANSLATOR: I'm very proud of Allemansratten. It is something found nowhere else in the world. I myself have a little island in Stockholm's archipelago, pretty far out to sea, a wonderful little summer paradise. And I have to say, if someone comes there I would be the last to tell them to leave.

ANDERSON: Roughly the size of California, Sweden has more than 90,000 lakes, and more than two thirds of its land is forested. And with only eight and a half million people, outdoor recreation in Sweden, though popular, does not constitute a serious threat to the environment and its biological diversity. To keep it that way, the Swedish EPA distributes pamphlets on the rights and wrongs of public access in Sweden. And it's an integral part of the nation's school curriculum. As the agency's Gunnar Zettersen puts it, use it or lose it.

ZETTERSEN: Because this is a custom. If you don't, this custom will disappear in 50 years or more. You must keep it alive, otherwise it will die.

(Berries spill into a bucket)

ANDERSON: For Living on Earth, I'm Linda Anderson.



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