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This Land Is Our Land: How We Lost the Right to Roam and How to Take It Back

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Private property is everywhere. Almost anywhere you walk in the United States, you will spot "No Trespassing" and "Private Property" signs on trees and fence posts. In America, there are more than a billion acres of grassland pasture, cropland, and forest, and miles and miles of coastlines that are mostly closed off to the public. Meanwhile, America's public lands are threatened by extremist groups and right-wing think tanks who call for our public lands to be sold to the highest bidder and closed off to everyone else. If these groups get their way, public property may become private, precious green spaces may be developed, and the common good may be sacrificed for the benefit of the wealthy few.

Ken Ilgunas, lifelong traveler, hitchhiker, and roamer, takes readers back to the nineteenth century, when Americans were allowed to journey undisturbed across the country. Today, though, America finds itself as an outlier in the Western world as a number of European countries have created sophisticated legal systems that protect landowners and give citizens generous roaming rights to their countries' green spaces.

Inspired by the United States' history of roaming, and taking guidance from present-day Europe, Ilgunas calls into question our entrenched understanding of private property and provocatively proposes something unheard of: opening up American private property for public recreation. He imagines a future in which folks everywhere will have the right to walk safely, explore freely, and roam boldly--from California to the New York island, from the Redwood Forest to the Gulf Stream waters.

288 pages, Paperback

First published April 10, 2018

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About the author

Ken Ilgunas

6 books256 followers
Ken Ilgunas was born in Ontario, and raised in Wheatfield -- a small town in western New York where his family still lives. At the moment, he's either tending a friend's garden in Stokes County, North Carolina, or traveling cross-country in his van.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 43 reviews
623 reviews
September 29, 2018
Interesting book, covers many sides of the “right to roam” argument and ramifications well. I feel much better informed.

But I do have some advice, Mr. Ilgunas. You need a brand. A graphic. A logo. Something that grassroots Americans can put on t-shirts and plaster on social media. I went to the web and tried to look up a sign that I could buy to post on my property (we, two thirty-somethings with five kids, own 43 acres, 14 of which are pretty wild woods), but I couldn’t find anything. I want a sign that says “Respectful people may roam here” or “Responsible citizens may roam here”, with the ROAM HERE part being larger than the rest. We could put up a sign with a garbage can next to it, and empty the bag occasionally when it gets full. And people could enjoy the woods and creek. But I’m horrible at sign painting, and graphic design. But if politicians start to see the brand, and people start putting up signs, and letting people onto their land, then things could change, right? Popular opinion sometimes needs a logo behind which to rally.

Any of my family/friends that actually read my reviews may come and roam whenever you want. You know, all three of you that live nowhere near me. Haha. But you should all be informed that cow-tipping is not a real thing, so don’t even think about it. Peace.
Profile Image for Rachel Lloyd.
39 reviews2 followers
July 2, 2019
I thought I knew a lot about the policy and law of the outdoor world in the United States, but this book was a game changer.
Although it was definitely entertaining, it still took me a while to get through this book (especially considering it was only a bit over 200 pages). But I’m so very glad that I stuck it out and finished reading this book.
I’ve read a lot of books about the outdoors in the past two years, but I think I learned the most from this one.
I’d like to expand, just for a moment, on one of the ideas that Ilgunas does not touch upon. That would be the idea that the right to roam (or the right of responsible access) would increase awareness of global warming and climate change. Awareness is already becoming heavily increased through social media sites such as Twitter and Instagram, however, (similar to how Ilgunas describes the concept of wildness vs. wilderness) many people fail to realize just how much they can effect change. Anyway this is just a long winded way of saying that I think the right to roam would decrease the odds of this planet going down the drain. America is absolutely full of people who take it for granted. Our beautiful land and planet are mistreated in this country. The right to roam has the potential to fix that.
Okay back to the book itself.
I would HIGHLY recommend this to anyone interested in adventure, the outdoors, and the ethics behind property. As someone was not previously interested in the philosophy of property law, I was not looking forward to reading about that, but I was pleasantly surprised. The parts on property law were some of the most entertaining and interesting parts of this book, and I was completely taken aback by how much I enjoyed them.
I can’t wait to read the other books by Ilgunas! And I also can’t wait for the day where we all get to roam free :)
Profile Image for Letitia Moffitt.
Author 5 books19 followers
June 29, 2018
A thoughtful and informative argument for the idea that Americans should have the freedom to roam our own lands. I like these ideas very much, though sadly I suspect the author will have an impossibly difficult struggle seeing them to fruition given the current political climate. Regardless, an interesting read.
Profile Image for Chris LaTray.
Author 12 books90 followers
July 26, 2019
I read a lot of walking books, and this is one of the good ones. I wish Americans could buy into this idea, but I get depressed considering the reach it would require. As Ilgunas writes toward the end of the book, "Only a society that walks will fight for the right to walk." I don't think the United States is anywhere near that.

I recently cut through Glacier Park as the quickest route from the east side of it to the west side. Traffic was unbelievable. An impatient jackass in a gigantic SUV was honking at people slowing down to watch a young grizzly bear foraging roadside. We are an impatient, impetuous, overly-entitled people who tend to think only of our own desires and conveniences. If we could channel a fraction of our blather over our rights to drive whatever we want, wherever we want, into slower means of transportation and less abusive intrusions into the natural world—like walking paths and trails—we might not be such jerks to each other.

*Heavy sigh*

In my fantasies of living somewhere where walking is the bulk of my means of transportation, those daydreams include emigrating somewhere else. Somewhere with a better view toward our intertwined existence with other lifeforms. Somewhere with fewer Americans.
Profile Image for Alex Kudera.
Author 5 books67 followers
July 16, 2018
I enjoyed his memoirs / travel narratives Walden on Wheels and Trespassing Across America more than this one. I can't think of another book-length argument I've read recently, so I'm uncertain of what I should have expected. As has been stated by at least one other reviewer, it is hard to imagine implementation of a "right to roam" in America today or in the near future. Right now, we're at a place where we can't even come to agreement on the facts, never mind positions to take on them. Anyway, I see that both Trespassing and The Right to Roam need more readers and ratings.
Profile Image for Robert Wechsler.
Author 12 books125 followers
October 30, 2019
I had questions at first, but those questions mostly fell by the wayside as I went further into this American book about the right to roam (or, in the better but less catchy Scottish version, “the right of responsible access”), what it means, how it has been applied in other countries (and in early America), the law in the U.S., and what it might take to give Americans the right to roam, especially locally and at the state level. My biggest problem with the book is how it downplays insurance. Ilgunas deals with insurance only at page 175, far too late, because a lot of what he describes derives from fears of being sued, even if they are, in many ways, exaggerated.
Profile Image for Megan Brady.
42 reviews
March 25, 2021
I recommend the audiobook version. I tried to read it, but couldn’t get through it, but as an audiobook it can be a quick read. Wow. This book made me think a lot about our private/public lands. My husband and I discussed the ideas in this book everyday while I was listening to it because I couldn’t keep the ideas to myself.
Profile Image for Cathy Douglas.
329 reviews21 followers
February 2, 2019
Interesting idea here, that we should be able to walk on anyone's private property. I can't imagine it happening, and to be honest, I don't really want the neighbors in the back yard.

I had no idea British and Scandinavian countries had a "right to roam," meaning that, within certain restrictions, people can walk wherever they want -- including private property. Also, depending on where, they can camp, make fires, fish and hunt on other people's private property. This book proposes similar laws for the US, pointing out that, earlier in our history, that's more or less how things worked here as well. But nowadays things have changed, and anywhere you go you're likely to find "No Trespassing" signs on most open land.

Back before we had kids, my husband and I used to go camping in lots of places that were not, strictly speaking, campgrounds. We used to buy history books and topographical maps, and go out looking for old ghost towns in California, Nevada and Oregon. Some of the places we camped may have been public lands, other places may have been private. Whatever they were, nobody ever came around.

Other people came to these places too. Lots of weekend guys would bring booze and guns, ride their trucks wherever they'd fit, build open fires, let their dogs run all over the place, shoot at cans and birds and whatever. There were prospectors living up there too, and just plain homeless people. Most of the unofficial campsites we used were already there; we'd park the VW by their fire pit, find the garbage they left behind, etc. One time I spent a good part of our stay at Red Dog reading the diary this one prospector left behind; he was living there because his girlfriend kicked him out. We also ran across his gold panning equipment, including a home-made sluice, but left all that in place for him.

The point being that people pretty much go wherever they want anyway. Yeah there are "No Trespassing" signs up, but the guys who go out to the country on Friday night with a twelve pack and a gun don't pay attention to those signs anyway.

If I were an owner of that land, I would not particularly want a bunch of drunks with guns lighting fires on my land and taking potshots at the birds. So a "Right to Roam" law would not sound like something in my favor. The book argues that having more people walking around on such lands would have some policing effect. But in the US, how many people would actually take advantage of such a law? I can walk all day in the parks we currently have, and hardly see anyone.

Ilgunas makes a good case that "Right to Roam" laws have worked well in small European countries, I just have a hard time picturing what it would look like here. City people like me might vote to give ourselves the right to roam around the countryside, though in the US this doesn't seem to be a very motivated contingent. But the main problem is, why would country landowners vote to allow people on their land? It seems to me like the people who own the land have little motivation to share -- especially if their experience has so far been bad. And I don't really blame them.
Profile Image for AJ.
1,450 reviews113 followers
May 2, 2022
I thought this book was interesting, and I agreed with much of what the author said. But I felt the book was somewhat lacking. At the end, the author talks about how somebody should start Right to Roam clubs... HOW ABOUT YOU, Mr. AUTHOR GUY?!?! Don't sit back and complain that nobody is getting involved!

One of the threads of the book was that people don't really get a feel for how our planet is being damaged and destroyed by industrialization when using curated trails like the AT, etc. It's mentioned that being able to roam through industrial areas (and factory farms, etc.) would help to open the eyes of our populace. However, the liability and risk associated with that is enormous. I don't see how that would ever fly in this country. The author talks about liability with respect to individual property owners, and then mentions we would have to exclude industrial land, quarries, etc. OK, well, you can't have it both ways!

I feel like one of the reasons I decided to stay in Illinois rather than move back to the northeast was all of the public trails, parks, and forest preserves that are available here. Yesterday I went for a 10 mile run, most of which was in county forest preserve land, and a few miles of which were on a very well maintained rails to trails trail. Now that I've seen what it's like to live in a place that values public space, I would never want to go back to rural NY where there is nowhere to walk except for dangerous roads.

I want to point out that all that county land I enjoy on a near daily basis isn't accounted for in the author's tally of public spaces, which I think was shortsighted. If we truly want to change things on a grassroots level, sometimes starting at counties or municipalities is smarter than starting at the state level. When I go home and visit my parents, I'm impressed at the Empire State Trail that now connects the state. The building of that trail had to deal with a TON of private property, and let me tell you that rural New Yorkers aren't exactly the most inviting people. I was disappointed that initiatives like that weren't discussed in the book. (I'm sure the Empire State Trail was underway when the book was being written, so it's not like the book is so old that it couldn't discuss a lot of newer trail systems.)
Profile Image for Tony Allevato.
11 reviews
June 17, 2020
This book is a beautiful discussion on "The Right to Roam", and its significance.
From a literary view, this book holds true to the nonfiction genre by being thoroughly researched, very informative, and entertaining to read. Ilgunas writes passionately about a subject he clearly cares deeply for while remaining objective and avoiding extrapolation from the data referenced in the book.

While I appreciate when someone identifies a problem that needs to be corrected, I simply love it when they also come prepared with a solution. Ilgunas opens with a discussion of a problem, the history, significance, and expresses a desire to change the current institutions in place causing the problem. But this is not the end, he continues by explaining why this subject is important to everyone (and I do mean everyone, regardless of race, religion, or country of origin), and examples of how this has been established in other places in the world, and backs this up with an incredible amount of research data.

This book came about as an addition to an article Ilgunas wrote previously in which people were able to comment on his essay. While the majority were supportive, there were several who disagreed and raised concerns. Instead of disregarding these issues, Ilgunas addresses them individually with examples from other countries with some version of a "Right to Roam" legislation, and dispels commonly held beliefs with actual data, research, current legislation, and practical examples.

Enjoyable to read, informative, objective, and passionate. I cannot recommend this book highly enough.
March 28, 2023
The first few chapters of this book provide an interesting insight into variations on how ‘private property’ is treated and defined across time and cultures. The author is clearly an experienced travel writer, and they’re descriptions of landscapes are very entertaining, readable, and compelling.

However, I think the book starts to fall apart around chapter 6. Although I think the points made in that chapter are accurate(Americans often lack access to both nature and communal land; Americans would benefit from access to nature; land ownership is concentrated and unequal; although it appears that the U.S government owns a lot of land, most public land is in just a few states and a large portion of ‘public’ land is not available to public use), the writing and layout of the chapter read as clunky and poorly formatted. Chapter 7 is fine and has its compelling parts, and I appreciate the finer details of implementation that chapter 8 lays out. However, I left the book feeling more informed about Scottish property law and generally more interested in common land management, but not convinced that the right to roam would substantially improve the lives of most Americans.

In conclusion, it’s a readable book that touches on some interesting perspectives and ideas but fails to form a cohesive and compelling picture of a ‘Right to Roam’ United States. I would recommend reading it up through chapter 6, skimming the last few chapters, then reading other books related to the topic of responsible use, property law, and management of public vs common land.
August 4, 2018
One of the more revelatory books I have read in a long time. As someone who likes to roam, I have always struggled living in a state where the irony is tons of open space locked up in exclusionary forms of private property. I wasn't aware something different was possible in the U.S. where private property is religion and god.

The author details regimes in other parts of the world that allow for more equitable use as well as possible avenues for the U.S. to follow that could help both the landed and the landless. Having spent time with relatives in Norway, where private land has shared uses and the common heritage of cultural sites are not the property of the landowner, I know something different can work well.

I read this book while enjoying one of our nation's great public spaces: the Oregon coast. The entire coast is available to anyone and we had a wonderful time enjoying that vibrant pubic space, one that is surprisingly not available in most coastal states. One day, I will probably move to a place where I can exercise my need to roam and hike in one of the wide open western states with lots of public land, but wouldn't it be nice if I could do it right out my front door...Anywhere?
Profile Image for Jason.
234 reviews9 followers
October 29, 2020
In brief: The Right to Roam is the idea that people should be allowed access to visit and walk through privately held but unimproved land.
There are more immediate and important issues facing this country - something the author recognizes. But the ideas underlying The Right to Roam are Central to how we need to think about ourselves as a society. Are we solitary individuals out for ourselves? Are we a mindless mass? Or are we a community of individuals? My money is on a society of individuals within a natural environment.
The book presents the history of the issue, how other countries have addressed and solved it, and how America can do so going forward.
There are stronger philosophical arguments he never picks up - that is the book's greatest weakness. He knows this isn't the time to solve this problem, so this is a fine time to dive deep - but he keeps it journalistic.
Aside: i keep finding that my books reference other books I know and love. This book references Wendell Berry, Rebecca Slotnick, and Jane Jacobs, among others.
Anyway, read this book.
Profile Image for Megan.
546 reviews86 followers
April 8, 2023
For the past four years of my life, my family has roamed public land every chance we could get. We've camped, foraged, hiked, & explored. We've come to know the "hidden" trails that landowners maintain for the public to wander in search of geocaches or views. We've spent miles on scenic trails traversing public and private property. We've driven hours to camp in crowded national parks. We've been heartbroken when landowners or the NYDEC revoked privileges due to others' misuse.

I have many conflicting thoughts on "the right to roam" — and so I was eager to read this book and learn from someone who's already thought it through with all of its ramifications. I will say, I learned a lot. I lean more towards approving of it than not after listening to what the author has to say.

Worth the read if you're passionate about the backcountry and our people's nature deficit.
Profile Image for M. .
159 reviews51 followers
Want to read
December 24, 2017
Ken Ilgunas is a travel descriptive writer, and this novel reveals how activism can be written about during the experience of a hike along a controversial pipeline across the heartland of America.

I understand how capitalism rules America, but after completing this novel, I ask the question why can't the oil in the Tarsands region be refined and kept on the Canadian Continent for everyone in the America's to use?

Either way, the novel reveals to other wannabe writers of travel is to seek travel and write about the experiences.
Profile Image for Michelle Ewen.
65 reviews3 followers
March 11, 2019
Ken Ilgunas returns with this robust and scholarly work advocating for the right to roam in America. A thorough and balanced exploration of the key issues surrounding property ownership, Ilgunas argues eloquently for urgent action to tackle the burgeoning crisis in the recreation.

A hearty cry to ignore those trespassing signs and boldly reclaim so-called private land, this work nevertheless champions responsible access while reminding us of our ethical and ecological duty to protect our natural resources.
Profile Image for ariel.
313 reviews27 followers
July 20, 2022
There was a LOT of great stuff in here. The author brings up a lot of great points, and gives solutions and evidence on how to make this reality. I understand why he brought up the founding fathers so frequently and show us their opinions of roaming private lands, but I thought a lot of his arguments were just a bit too white and male centric, and I wish he acknowledged that bias more. I did appreciate when he brought up the reality of women, Native Americans, and POC, because it brought more depth to this argument. Overall, a very well written book and I recommend it!
Profile Image for Tracy.
907 reviews
October 10, 2022
Interesting book about the US property system and trespass. Pace was pretty slow tho and it felt like reading an extremely long Nat Geo article. I really liked the stats on public land and concentration of ppl and also the numbers on urban taxes supporting rural areas. All that said, I have no hope that anything will change in the US w/re: Right to Roam. People are too protective of their land. Can you imagine shooting a family (and killing a 7yo) bc they stopped on the side of the road to pee? Ridic and I hope that person rots in prison.
Profile Image for David  Robertson.
29 reviews1 follower
April 23, 2018
Interesting topic, not widely covered anywhere else. I love Walden on Wheels so much and hope Ken's next book he will cover his adventures from his point of view. Good eye opening facts, but a little dry at times and reads a bit like a textbook. I did learn a lot, but was a little rougher getting through than his other two excellent books, Walden on Wheels, and Trespassing Across America. Keep 'em coming Ken!
Profile Image for Laura.
96 reviews1 follower
August 13, 2018
Whether it's roaming, rambling, walking, or hiking, the public lands in the US are more restricted than most countries. This is a great insight into social and cultural norms around public space, private lands, and trespassing. As an avid outdoors adventurer, I thought this was a valid reminder that we need to be more mindful about the open air, green space, and wilderness not only in national/state parks but also in our communities and neighborhoods where we live.
Profile Image for Thomas Elpel.
37 reviews4 followers
September 11, 2019
Freedom to Roam is a topic I am very passionate about, and I’ve written some essays about it as well, so the book jumped to the top of my reading pile. I wish it were required reading for all Americans to better understand how we all formerly owned the right to roam the open countryside! I could easily buy this book by the case to gift to friends and family. I just started reading it a second time!
Profile Image for Jean Dupenloup.
475 reviews4 followers
May 2, 2020
An interesting concept by Ken Ilgunas, who makes a passionate argument for what he calls the right to roam (basically granting access to all land for everyone regardless of ownership.)

His reasoning is sound and seems possible based on the other countries that have adopted this policy.

Could it ever take root in the United States, among a people who practically worship the idea of private property?

I strongly doubt it.

It’s a nice dream and a decent read nonetheless!
8 reviews
November 29, 2021
An overall well written and well constructed revelation of the Right to Roam or the Right of Responsible Access. The background and examples from around the globe presented by Ilgunas allow for an in depth understanding of the Right to Roam in its different forms. Once we have the basic understanding down, Ilgunas discusses its benefits to society, what it would look like in an American context, and how we can get there. I want more land policy books like this.
Profile Image for Kenzie.
352 reviews
February 10, 2022
An interesting view on the right to roam America and the status of public land. This is a very political book and in some ways I do agree with the author that public land should be ours to enjoy. However, I do understand that it is unlikely to happen in the US. I did enjoy chapter 7 where Ilgunas specifically explains and argues people who disagree with his theory of the right to roam. Overall it was a good read that was informative even if not always agreeable.
Profile Image for Shannon.
44 reviews
January 17, 2019
A very impressive compilation of personal stories, news stories and references. Made me reflect on where I live in Southern Saskatchewan Canada and how much I value exploring my neighbours property as well as hunting on their property. I hope in Canada it doesn’t become like the nightmare of private property it is in the states.
Profile Image for AN R.
67 reviews
September 19, 2019
If not for the brief but completely unnecessary digressions about mental health and the immorality of existing in my own body, I would’ve described this as “mildly stirring.” The central thesis is easy to agree with if overly optimistic. Not enough time is spent on the race and gender obstacles to roaming, in my opinion.
Profile Image for Kasey Lawson.
200 reviews1 follower
August 16, 2018
“Along these lines, agrarian philosopher Wendall Berry said, “A proper community is a commonwealth: a place, a resource, an economy. It answers the needs, practical as well as social and spiritual, of its members—among them the need to need one another.”
Profile Image for Michal Angelo.
113 reviews
August 28, 2018
* My introduction to Ilgunas was his work "Tresspassing Across America", an insightful and witty account of his adventure.
* A seemingly active activist, this volume is less about adventure and more about political science
* I set this book aside to move onto a different topic
Profile Image for Richard Erney.
37 reviews
January 22, 2019
I was intrigued by the topic but probably won’t actually finish this book. I’m certainly behind the notion of the right to roam and not allowing private interests to deny access to our public spaces and federal lands. I’m just not sure that I need a couple of hundred pages to convince me.
Displaying 1 - 30 of 43 reviews

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