How well do inherited policies work in changing times?
To be specific, I am mulling over things like trapping and mineral rights. Bear with me and I’ll explain.
When I was a child my father mentioned the term “mineral rights.” I had to ask what that meant. He explained that sometimes land owners do not own all of it, top to bottom. If there was something valuable underneath – like precious metals, coal or oil – the right to those resources might be held by others. We happened to live in a state that retained all mineral rights.
Little Lucy: “Are you telling me the state could stick an oil rig in our yard without our permission?!”
More-worldly father: “It’s possible. But don’t worry, there really aren’t minerals worth extracting where we live.”
What he described sounded completely outrageous. Only with age could I conceptualize how and why such policies could be arguably necessary for a greater social or economic good. (I’m not saying I agree with the concept, only that there are significant justifications.)
By the way, double checking the status of mineral rights in Hawaii I discovered that issue is now leading to disagreements over at least one resource of interest: geothermal energy.
This past week I read a somewhat-related item by Ottawa Citizen columnist Kelly Egan, on an activity few of us encounter anymore: trapping. Egan recounted how a Perth-area property owner was arrested – and eventually fined – after removing traps set on his land, without his permission.
It turns out wild animals in Ontario are “owned” by the crown and trapping is regulated by the provinces. Like mineral rights in Hawaii, there are times when control of that resource can trump what a landowner might want. Under Ministry of Natural Resources regulations, trappers would usually need permission to trap on private land. But in this particular case, according to Egan:
The confusion was over the “high-water” mark. The Ministry of Natural Resources maintains the Crown’s property extends to the river’s highest point in the spring — normally dry riverbed the rest of the year.
A few days ago, a justice of the peace ruled the traps were legal, even though the muskrats and beavers might frolic, feed or cavort on private property in low-water seasons.
The Perth landowner is a nature-lover who likes having beavers on his land. He came away feeling let down by the system. (No doubt the trapper has strongly-felt views too, but those were not included in the account.) For what it’s worth here’s a link to trapping regulations for the state of New York.
By chance I’ve just been reading two books that relate to the fur trade as formative part of Canada. One was Canoeing a Continent: On the Trail of Alexander Mackenzie by Max Finkelstein, an Ottawa-based paddler and author. The other was The Orinda by Joseph Boyden. In it we get the real-life cultural collision of Jesuit missionaries, and some of Ontario’s native people way back in the 1630’s, by way of strong fictional characters: a just-orphaned Iroquois girl and her captor, a Huron war chief who decides to adopt the unusual child. (If you like that sort of thing I recommend this novel. All three perspectives are presented with insight and sympathy.)
Canada’s original inhabitants did not believe in land title, though tribes could and did defended territorial space. Early Europeans in Canada also followed game and fur where ever they found it, or traded for fur trapped by natives.
Modernity can bring odd twists to established practices. Are you OK with trappers perhaps having traditional rights to trap on your land – or river, as the case may be? Fur trapping is somewhat out of vogue now. But is that activity so very different than navigational rights, so hotly contested in recent years by recreational paddlers?
Flipping again to mineral rights, back when most European settlers saw an “empty” continent in need of development, there seemed to be less concern about the damage done by resource extraction. As populations and environmental awareness have expanded, more voices question why extraction merits special favor, despite potential negative impacts on communal resources like water.
For sure, this is a complicated and highly contentious issue, as seen in the fracking debate.
But out of genuine curiosity, if you were starting from scratch – empowered to make the rules – how would you set up resource ownership and extraction? How would you balance rights, risks and responsibilities?
Would you be guided by what has held sway in the past? Or focus on what might make the most sense for now and the future?