This Water Is Mine
Imagine that you have hiked for hours into the mountains. Into one of Norway's largest national parks. Vast mountain plains. Lakes and rivers as far as the eye can see.
Now you're pressing on. Heavy backpack, dripping sweat. Sore feet. Finally, you reach your destination. A clear mountain lake glittering in the sun. You've spent hours studying the map, picturing how it would look in real life. Now you stand at the shore at last. You pitch the tent and prepare for supper. But first, you want to try and catch a trout. You make a few casts as a gentle breeze moves across the water. The peace and quiet lower your heart rate and you settle into the rhythm of the mountains.
But now you hear something. A faint noise. It's getting louder. Is it the sound of an engine? It can't be. You are literally hours away from the nearest road.
Then you see it. There is a boat speeding across the lake. A motorized boat here? All this way into the mountains? What the hell.
There is a man in the boat waving at you. What does he want? He gets closer. He is shouting something. He keeps getting closer. Now you see that he is upset. He shouting that you are not allowed to fish. It is a private lake! His boat is full of nets. He shouts again. Almost threatening. Seriously? Miles away from anything, deep in the mountains, a guy in a boat is claiming ownership of the water. He's angry. This guy is not kidding around.
Sadly, this is not fiction. There is actually quite a lot of privately owned lakes and land inside Norway's largest national park, Hardangervidda. And many fishermen have had experiences much like the one described above. Like a relic of a bygone era, the right to own property in what is by definition public lands are still being upheld. A feudal-like practice that has survived all the way into the modern social democracy of Norway. The extent is perhaps most obvious when you purchase a fishing license for certain areas of the national park. On the crude map printed on the license, private lakes and waterways are marked in red. Sometimes nearly all of it is red, except maybe some unfishable rapids and shallow ponds. Thus making the purchase of a license quite absurd. A license to fish. Nowhere.
How did it end up like this?
When the national park was established in 1981 the landowners maintained their property rights as long as they didn't violate the conservation objectives that were stated in the regulations. This system of extensive private ownership remains in place to this day, greatly impeding the public access to many lakes and rivers. I assume this was a compromise that had to be made in order to establish the park in the first place. Landowners were probably not willing to give up their land without compensation, and the state could probably not afford to buy all the land. Hence, it is up to private actors to enforce their rules as they see fit. To me, this seems to be at odds with the concept of a public area like a national park and it needs to be challenged.
Of course, there should be strict rules and regulations that keep the public from causing to much harm to nature, fish stocks and wildlife, but I can't see that private ownership is the best way to regulate such matters. Firstly, many private actors use their lakes as a second source of income, and through extensive fishing with nets risk depleting populations of fish for short term profit, leaving the lakes barren for years before the population of fish replenishes. Secondly, many offer exclusive fishing rights in private lakes at very high prices, thus excluding most people from ever having a chance at participating. In both cases, the public is not the beneficiaries. Doesn't this go against the core concepts of a national park? Isn't it supposed to be a conserved natural area that the public can enjoy without ever being at risk of trespassing? As a matter of principle, I believe that national parks should be fully publicly owned, and locally managed. That is how you achieve the best outcome for all. Local management can ensure that specific geographical and biological knowledge is the foundation of the decisionmaking process, and public ownership makes sure that everyone has legal access. It should definitely not be left to the whim of private interests how we regulate our common natural heritage.