Lady Liberty’s Vision for Land

Adam Janke | Assistant Professor in Natural Resource Ecology and Management and Extension Wildlife Specialist, Iowa State University

Liberty is at the heart of the American experiment: that fundamental concept that says the will of the majority should not supersede the rights of individuals. Emerging from this pillar however is a fundamental question: to what extent can one actor infringe on the rights of another? This question is central to private land stewardship.

statue of liberty

Photo by Daniel Bendig on Pexels.com

It takes a special view of liberty to work for land. One that acknowledges individual rights while also recognizing the stakes of a whole community of downstream and yet unborn beneficiaries of ‘common pool resources’ like water, air, soil, and wildlife. It takes what Iowa native Aldo Leopold called “The Land Ethic”.

Universal adoption of a land ethic however has not been realized. And incentive structures of land ownership tend to push any obligations for natural resource stewardship to the fringe of the land ownership experience. To fight this centuries-old challenge, I think we need new inspiration and a healthy dose of American optimism.

Now, I should make an admission. For better or worse, it seems that at any given moment my mind is dwelling on two subjects: 1) conservation or 2) current affairs. The former is my job, but also a life-long passion, whereas the latter is admittedly more an indulgence, probably driven by whatever gene I share with those who go to the State Fair only to “People Watch”.

Recently, attention to the questions of liberty and access to our democracy that have consumed headlines precipitated a weird mashup of those two streams of thought, connecting one fundamental American idea with that one fundamental American challenge for land.

That American idea is that diversity makes us stronger; that the parts are greater than the whole when we work together to exploit individual strengths. It’s so central to our democracy that a tribute to it is cast in bronze on the Statue of Liberty:

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

The-New-Colossus-2 - National Park Service photo

National Park Service photo.

In those lines, I read a vision for the land from Lady Liberty.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” is her establishing the right of our democracy to find an American way to steward land while retaining the privileges of private ownership enjoyed by a wide cross-section of society.

This diffuse, private ownership creates a challenge, and the solution is offered in the next few lines. “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddle masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore” is her playbook for conservation; a tool to be applied with precision where land needs to heal. The huddled masses and wretched refuse are just as valued a feature of the land as any other.

Opportunity areas figure

Finding paces where land needs to heal is the key focus of precision conservation.

“Send these, the homeless, tempest tost to me” to improve the system by cleaning water, providing wildlife habitat, reducing inputs and improving the value of acres that remain. Here she insists we’re all made better by embracing the diversity of our lands and working with the system, not against it.

“I lift my lamp beside the golden door” to light the way to a sustainable future of land stewardship, one that creates profits for individual landowners while protecting air, water, soil, and wildlife for today and future Americans.

No democracy would ever survive without its natural resources. I think Lady Liberty’s vision for land is one that acknowledges that reality and is poised to light the way to a long sustainable future for ours.

Liberty for land and all of us that love her: that’s a vision consistent with the ideals of this nation.

Adam Janke