Models of Land Ownership in the Eastern Ontario Model Forest

CITATION: Schueler, Frederick W. 1999. Models of Land Ownership in the Eastern Ontario Model Forest, Forestry Forum, 2(24):3, May 1999

Models of Land Ownership in the Eastern Ontario Model Forest

ADDRESS:Eastern Ontario Biodiversity Museum, RR#2 Oxford Station, Ontario KOG 1T0, (613)258-3107,

It's a commonplace of anthropology that different cultures have very different mental and legal models of time, space, and ownership. Such concepts may be fairly uniform in small traditional populations, but in the pluralistic culture of modern North America divergent models persist or arise in radical opposition to the models of the dominant culture. At EOMF meetings the clash of models of land tenure is subdued but fundamental. We constantly speak of "land owners" but all our programs seek to persuade "owners" to perform actions because they are of benefit to society as a whole or to the ecological diversity or stability of the region or planet.

The overt Commercial model holds that land ownership is not much different from ownership of disposible commodities or objects: complete control over the land, which extends to the power to destroy. Zoning restrictions on degrading the biotic communities co-inhabiting land with the human owners mostly take the form of indirect obstacles that must be overcome by money or effort before the owner can have his way. This kind of ownership is, however, regarded as a legal fiction by many People, who go though the motions of purchase, deeds, and taxes, but know that it is not their role to dominate their land, and who use the rituals of 'ownership' largely to protect their land from other People. Just as everyone now rejects the power to destroy implied by slavery, these outcasts from commercial values reject the right to destroy implied by commercial land ownership. They feel that Song Sparrows and other non-self-reflective species may hold land in an absolute, consumerist, way, but that such dominion is implausible for individuals who can foresee their own death, and know that the land will outlast them. Their alternative model covertly coexists with the consumerist model, and is likely more widely held among members of the EOMF than in the population at large: one is the servant of one's land and its life.

In the covert model, while the land provides one with subsistance, one does one's best to sustain and enhance the life of the land. Family ownership, itself oppressed by inheritance taxes, is similar to this model, because the current ‘owner' maintains the land in what he hopes is an equilibrium condition that will continue to provide the current services for his descendents, which likely requires a considerable degree of ecological health.

The tax system does not admit any ambiguity in ownership models, however. No one is allowed much exemption from the state religion of hoping-for-fiscal-gain. Despite the fact that surveyed boundaries are credited with much of the ecological damage commercial People have inflicted on North America (William Cronon, 1983. Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England. Hill & Wang, New York. xiii+241 pp.) owners, even if their land provides services of inestimable benefit to their human and other neighbours, can only gain a partial remission of property taxes by producing "management" plans swarming with new compartments and boundaries. If boundaries drawn across the land are the source of our ecological problems, can we overcome them by producing infinitely more of them? If there is a calculus-like limit theorum at work here, I've never heard it expounded, yet this seems to be an unspoken core assumption of the conservation and endangered species movements. .

If land "ownership" is the root of many of our ecological problems, then continuing to use the term as if it had the same meaning to everybody validates the consumerist model of ownership. One fundamental adjustment in language is easy: stop referring to land as "property." Say "my land" rather than "my property." There is, however, no synonym for "land owner" which is ambiguous with reference to the model of land tenure. "Keeper" or "curator" would have the desired meaning, but are probably too closely associated with museums to be widely used. "Land steward" comes as close as any, and we hear this increasingly often, but perhaps it is best to imply diversity by saying "land owners and land holders [or ‘stewards,' or ‘keepers']" to emphasise the existence of different land tenure models.

In an organization like the EOMF it's easy to work desperately hard trying to slowly push Commercial Society towards sustainable practices, but we must never forget the very real possibility that fundamental changes will be needed before sustainability can be attained. One part of making sustainable practices easy and natural for People, rather than an unrewarded stuggle against the grain of society, will likely be making governments acknowledge that their model of land ownership was formed when subduing and conquering the landscape was felt to be an obligation, and leading them to acknowledge that in a conquered land the remnants of autonomous wilderness provide the greatest benefit to both People and other species.

We very likely need a new model of land taxation in which taxes are levied, not on speculative ‘market value' but on the degree of human control, change, and pollution inflicted on the land. These deviations-from-wilderness should be directly assessed by the government (as "market value" is now) by survey and remote sensing, rather than by elaborate through-the-hoop reporting by individual landowners. Those who wish to dominate their land by degrading forests, or by manicuring pasture-wide pesticide-soaked monocultural lawns, should have to bear some of the costs these actions inflict on their neighbours. On the other hand, there should be rebates for lands in fallow and secondary succession, and these should be higher in landscapes where wild land is rarer. Letting wild species extend their domain into areas previously more intensely used by People benefits both the human community and the other species, and lands in this condition should not be taxed on the assumption that they are being held for speculative fiscal gain.

It's a long way from exploitative, consumerist, commercial society to sustainable human habitation in North America. We don't make the way any easier by pretending that we're all starting from the worst, or even average, excesses of mass culture. We must identify the elements of a pluralistic culture -- multi-generational family woodlot management, backwoods frugality, benign horticulture, conservation tillage, volunteered community cohesion, naturalist biophilia -- that would together sum to something close to a sustainable society, and insist that these traditional practices receive as much support from society -- in both language and action -- as unsustainable practices have received in the past.


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COMMENTS: This essay was inspired by convolutions of the Ontario Managed Forest Tax Incentive Program (MFTIP), which reduces the heavy tax load imposed on the owners of forested land that would have greater commercial value if cleared for some other use. Initally, the owner could plan to do nothing, on the grounds that any intervention was an interference, and that the forest would be most natural on its own. This was soon changed, so that the owner had to 'do' some 'management' in order to qualify for the tax discount (though this 'management' could be monitoring of ecological contditions which would nominally not change anything).

It seemed to me that insisting on management denied that the owner was receiving the tax reduction because of the intrinsic benefits forest cover conferred (i.e. that it was the agreement not to disturb the forest that conferred the benefit on human society and the ecology, not whatever management might be done towards a goal which might, in the long run, turn out to have been less appropriate than unmanaged ecological change or stasis.

If the tax reductions are for 'management' then they are not due to the intrinsic benefits the forest confers, but because the land is being treated as a low-return economic investment, which is mis-classified if taxed at the potentially-residential rate (the same reasoning behind reduced tax rates for agricultural land). --- F.W.Schueler - March 2003.

"The current problem with MFTIP assessments is that MPAC (the provincial assessment corporation) says that when you get a MFTIP and the assessment on your woodland goes down, since the overall value of the property hasn't changed, the assessment on the house must go up to compensate. Voila! Minimal tax savings!" (Stew Hamill, Managed Forest Tax Incentive Program plan preparer and reviewer, Wolford Centre).