Thursday, December 12, 2013

David and Goliath: The Power of the People

In a small corner of this big country, there is a battle going on. Unless you live in New England, you probably haven’t heard about this place, but the locals call it ‘the North Country’, a very rural and densely forested part of Northern New Hampshire. It is sparsely inhabited and because of its poverty level it gets federal assistance, like many Indian reservations. Mobile homes are aplenty and unemployment is high as the North Country’s traditional industries – paper mills and other wood products manufacturing – have largely collapsed.

For the past few years, this beautiful area has been the battleground for the establishment of a huge high-voltage transmission route, given the name "Northern Pass". The plan is to construct more than 1,100 visually jarring steel towers up to 155 feet tall through a 180-mile swath of the state in order to reach lucrative energy markets in Southern New England.

Without seeking permission from landowners, much less notifying them, the Northern Pass developers helped themselves freely to private property to plot the route (on paper, at least). They assumed they would be able to take what they had to by eminent domain, but were in for a surprise when the New Hampshire legislature voted against it.

As you drive through the White Mountains and the North Country, you might wonder who owns all those thousands and thousands of trees? Out West, it would be sensible to assume that you are driving through public land, but most of New Hampshire is owned by ‘family forest’ owners, whose property ranges from 10 to 1000 acres. It is those owners that Northern Pass is trying to buy out in order to establish their route.

Amazingly, the area that Northern Pass needs to connect to the ‘grid’ down south is only 40 miles wide, but a high-voltage electricity transmission line has the nasty habit of being useless if there is even a small gap in the route, and the local owners are putting crucial obstacles in the way of this unpopular project.

Their refusal to sell would not be enough, however, without the help and resources of environmental groups, such as the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests and the Appalachian Mountain Club. Property owners have banded together to sell easement rights to these organizations and thus stopped Northern Pass’s access. Ironically, individual property owners depend on a communal effort to fight corporate power.

Were this project located in Canada, where all the land belongs to the ‘Crown’ - or rather the Queen of England, since Canada is still a ‘dominion’ of Britain, - Northern Pass would only have to deal with the Canadian Government and bypass the ‘will of the people’ entirely.

As you can see on the pie chart, 56% of the land in this country is privately owned. Even if you take into account the dozen or so billionaires who own about 1% of the land in this country, land is distributed more fairly than in many other countries, at least in the Eastern United States. On top of that, America's public lands, totaling approximately 247.3 million acres, or one-eighth of the landmass of the country, is also ‘ours’.

In some countries the land is either owned by the Government or by the Aristocracy. In England, 30% of the land still belongs to a few thousand noble families, and the entire country of Kuwait is the property of its ruler. But nothings tops the holdings of the Queen of England: she owns 6,600 million acres of land, one sixth of the earth’s landmass.

But even when land is privately owned, it doesn’t mean that the owner can do as she pleases. Eminent domain gives the state rights to his or her land, easement rights can be sold or sometimes taken, there are mineral rights, etc. In other words, you cannot ‘own’ your land outright; all you can own are some or all the ‘rights’ to the land. In the case of Northern Pass, it is the community’s ‘right’ to prevent a private company from making a profit off of the back of local owners by devaluing the land.

Small family forest owners are good stewarts of their land. But they are just that: ‘small’. Together, they can be effective. One other weapon that small property owners have, is to adopt a Community Bill of Rights. After all, when thousands of people gather to protest something -- fracking, say, in New York State -- it is because they see that the law, which favors corporate interests rather than voting constituents, is broken. The “Community Bill of Rights,” sets standards at the municipal and county levels that privilege environmental and health concerns over corporate profit. It overrides decision making at the State level.

How about the rights of the land itself? Should we not accord the planet itself some rights? If what the landowner does on his land conflicts with the planet’s rights, should we not ask some questions? That question, I leave for another day. I am just glad that in this small corner of America, David seems to be winning out over Goliath. leave comment here