November 6 was the 800th anniversary of the signing of the Charter of the Forest in England on November 6, 1217. This charter returned to free men rights of access to the royal forests of southern England that had been taken from them by William the Conqueror. It was the first time in European history where legal rights were afforded to ordinary people; two years earlier the Magna Carta protected only noble barons from arbitrary abuse by the sovereign. In essence, the Charter of the Forest was a momentous victory for democracy, re-establishing common lands for public use and enjoyment.
Today we need another democratic insurrection to protect the public trust and care for our national forests no longer controlled by the King but owned by the American taxpayers. Instead of putting management in the hands of forestry professionals in service of industry funded politicians, I propose a proven method of giving the public a powerful new voice in how our lands are cared for.
It’s called ‘co-determination’ in Europe. In Germany, for example, large corporations are required to have half their board of directors elected by the workers. In addition, workers have a say in day to day practices via elected councils that have veto power over certain managements practices. This participatory system reduces conflict and increases efficiency and, as a result, Germany’s economy is a world leader.
Empowering citizens as co-equal managers is the modern equivalent of restoring peasant rights and access. A co-determination process for public lands would give native people meaningful consultation rights and meet the requirements of existing law to involve citizens in management “to the fullest extent possible.” (National Environmental Policy Act, CEQ regulations section 1502(d)).
Our national forests are a colonized and degraded legacy of the English commons. Taken by force from indigenous people, exploited for profit by the timber, mining and livestock industries, today public forests are being aggressively manipulated to save them from a no-win fight against fires driven by a warming climate. Citizens are the deed holders of public lands and now need a meaningful voice in deciding their fate.