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

Property Rights

Air Date: Week of

Kim Motylewski reviews Eric Freifogle's new book on the property rights debate, "Bounded People, Boundless Land."


CURWOOD: Property rights remain a highly contentious issue, especially where the interests of landowners clash with nature's requirements. In his latest book, Bounded People, Boundless Land, Eric Freyfogle proposes a compromise meant to satisfy conservationists and property rights advocates alike. Kim Motylewski has this review.

MOTYLEWSKI: Eric Freyfogle teaches law at the University of Illinois, but readers know from the first chapter of Bounded People, Boundless Land, that they are in the lands of a literate storyteller. Freyfogle draws on fictional characters and case law to tell his tale. He even invokes the Robert Frost poem "Mending Wall" to illustrate the paradox of boundaries. While one landowner questions the value of a stone wall between his orchard and a neighbor's woodlot, the other proclaims, "Good fences make good neighbors."

So they do, allows Mr. Freyfogle. Walls can lend a sense of pride and caring among owners, create order in communities, and allow for trade. But he cautions they also fragment, prevent us from seeing the whole landscape and treating it as a connected system. For example, he wonders how many of us have ever walked a watershed to find the source of our drinking water. How many ride over a polluted river every day, without a thought to the lost chance to drink from it?

Eric Freyfogle's cure for these ills is to redefine the land ethic, and with it the property rights battle. His proposal: revive human communities, along with protecting diversity and natural systems. Such an ethic calls for broad local participation in land use decisions, and protecting landowners as stewards. Such an ethic would also require substantial changes to property law. The statutes would no longer exist solely to defend landowner interests from outsiders, but also to defend community interests. Mr. Freyfogle would preserve the most basic individual rights, to privacy and to the value of improvements, but he would tailor other rights and uses to what he calls "intrinsic land values," or natural limits. What is allowed on flat highlands might be forbidden in river bottoms if it disrupts some vital natural function.

It's not clear how such a code would differ form the zoning and environmental laws which are supposed to protect community interests already. Or how the most libertarian property owners could be brought on board. Eric Freyfogle hasn't got all the answers, but he has staked out some important middle ground in the often fiery property rights debate.

CURWOOD: Kim Motylewski is a freelance writer based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She reviewed Eric Freyfogle's latest book, Bounded People, Boundless Land.



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