Thanksgiving should be a time for reflection and in last week's column on what to be thankful for, open land - places mercifully spared from "No Trespassing" or "No Hunting" or "No Anything" signs - topped the list.
In that piece, written almost wistfully, I wrote that I could go out my barn door and hunt on neighbors' land and their neighbors' land far beyond all day long and never see "No" anything signs anywhere. The wistful part comes from the sad fact that open land is falling victim to a line creeping northward as steadily as the snow line in spring.
This is not a finger-pointing theme. The fact is the vast majority of Americans have no background in rural ways of life in general or hunting in particular. If people from Nashua, Boston or beyond buy a piece of New Hampshire real estate, chances are that they've never had to deal with the open land concept, or even think much about hunting.
I bumped into this in an impromptu visit at the grocery store in Colebrook with a man who was tickled that he'd just closed on a 50-acre woodlot near the Connecticut River Headwaters Tract. That piece has been posted, I mused, wondering if he'd continue it. "What's 'posted' mean?" he said, not batting an eye. Many new landowners, including him, are totally unprepared for the post-or-not-post question and are caught completely flat-footed.
Envision, say, the young couple who suddenly become owners of a 200-acre woodlot in East Bumford bequeathed by Uncle Fudd. They go up for a look at this piece of God's Country envisioning, say, a neat little cabin in the woods with bluebirds chirping and butterflies fluttering and all and they suddenly hear gunshots, and after fainting and reviving themselves and calling 911 and the SWAT team, rush to the nearest copy center for the "No Everything" posters, which they dutifully hammer up every 50 feet around their property line.
Who's to tell them what's what, to explain history and tradition and facts about hunters and hunting versus half-baked tales and innuendo? That's the key to much of the posted-property line creeping north, a culture clash with no middleman to explain.
How to reach new landowners regarding the to-post-or-not-to-post question is a tough nut to crack. How to go about it?
In this scenario, I envision Bud and Bertha, retirees, perhaps baby boomers who've invested their lifelong earnings in a chunk of land in a place where hunting is still very much a part of tradition. They have utterly no background or understanding concerning hunting. After an encounter or two with hunters and perhaps hikers or horse riders or bird watchers or berry pickers or wanderers in general, up go the "No Everything" signs.
How does anyone reach these new owners with a preventative and positive message: "You're welcome to enjoy our land, and we hope we can enjoy yours"?
One train of thought is, how about the real estate agent?
He's in an excellent position with the help of the local hunting and fishing club to slip the new owners the message that their new property has always been open land for others to use within certain bounds of common sense, decency and respect.
(A note here: Even if the new owners are eligible for the current-use tax assessment, meaning their land can be assessed according to what it's being used for - farming or forestry, rather than commercial enterprise or house lots - this does not automatically grant public access. Automatic access comes only if the new owners take the additional 20 percent recreation discount for keeping the land open for traditional use - which does not, it bears stressing, include motorized use.)
Every year, hundreds and hundreds of land transactions feature new owners who are totally unaware of the long-held and tenaciously preserved privilege of trespass, an ethic totally unknown in major parts of the country.
It's a northern New England tradition so close to the soul, a tradition so tenuous that every new piece of land posted is another dart to the heart of the long tradition of open land.
In the next couple of weeks or so, I'll relate some of the worst examples I've seen, during 45 years of newspapering and 39 years of writing this column, of people abusing the privilege of open land and exhibiting total disrespect for the landowners - the small percentage of bad apples in any pursuit.
But for now, the question is how to reach new landowners about the complicated and priceless tradition of open land and the privilege of wandering the territory at will.
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John Harrigan's column runs weekly in the New Hampshire Sunday News. His address is PO Box 39, Colebrook 03576. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org