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Inside the Outdoors: This holiday was a memorial to our privileges, too

Last Sunday, I attended a Memorial Day ceremony at the Minnesota State Veterans Cemetery, located at Camp Ripley just north of Little Falls. My father-in-law, a colonel when he retired from the military, had his ashes interred there last summer, ...

Last Sunday, I attended a Memorial Day ceremony at the Minnesota State Veterans Cemetery, located at Camp Ripley just north of Little Falls.

My father-in-law, a colonel when he retired from the military, had his ashes interred there last summer, and his widow, his son, my wife (his daughter) and I felt drawn to take part in this year's event.

As you might imagine, it was a ceremony with lots of patriotic dimensions, from the music, to the flags, to the speeches and uniforms. Although as a country we've made some mistakes in living out our modern democratic experiment, we have a lot to be proud of - and thankful for - as well.

The most obvious "thank yous" we owe are to the founding fathers who conceived this experiment in self-government, and to the many men and women who have sacrificed to preserve it over some 240 years. Some of these people are marked by headstones at that very military cemetery.

We owe them thanks for personal liberties, for freedom from domination by powers and governments beyond our shores, and for the opportunity to live our lives in our own way, according to our skills and ambitions.

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On a level that is more in synch with the purpose of this column, the out-of-doors, Americans are similarly fortunate in the way our system operates. To our European ancestors, the idea that the bounty of the land in game and fish should be available to the common man would have been incomprehensible. Most - certainly the most desirable - game and fish were found in the lands and waters owned and controlled by the gentry, the "Lord Grantham's" of the Empire, if you have watched the public television series "Downton Abbey."

You don't have to look beyond the British Parliament to see how Europe in general distinguished between upper and lower rungs of the social ladder. In British government, if you represented a region of the country as a member of the landowning gentry class, you belonged in the House of Lords. But if you were an ordinary "common" person without a title in your name, you were - no surprise here - a member of the House of Commons.

Although Americans know there are great disparities between the rich and the poor in our country, and between the weak and the powerful, most of us would bristle at being called a "commoner."

In Great Britain, continuing the case in point, the land on which most game was found, and through which the best and most fishable streams and rivers flowed, was for centuries held in private estates. As with many things, the more scarce and unattainable they are, the more desirable, and the more willing some are to take risks to obtain them. Poaching was the natural result, and during a brief period of English history even operated like organized crime.

One of the driving forces of migration to the American colonies, and eventually our War for Independence, was the desire to level the playing field in the quest for success in life. In America there would be no hereditary titles, no dukes, earls or lords. Private property, to be sure, but with the opportunity for far more of the citizenry to share in it, and vast lands teeming with game and waters with fish that were not owned by "the crown" (the king) or the titled nobility.

Migrants to America not only faced no royal or noble claims to wildlife, but initially found seemingly inexhaustible resources, and with little foresight and generally less regulation, took whatever their initiative and hard labor could harvest.

Unfortunately, that led to the kind of excesses that drove such species as the Labrador duck, the passenger pigeon and heath hen to extinction. But what was becoming firmly established was the principle that the common man (whether he liked being called that or not) had some entitlement - like fish and game resources - that were out of reach in countries of origin across the sea.

This way of looking at things still exists in our modern world because America has far more public lands than have the more densely populated and highly developed countries our immigrant ancestors came from. Our national wildlife refuges, national parks, national forests, federal waterfowl production areas, and the like, offer millions of acres open to recreation, including fishing and hunting, available to anyone for the price of a license; or free, for many activities.

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Minnesota is even further ahead on this curve of public land ownership and access. Not all politicians with dollar signs in their eyes appreciate the fact, but it's so: We have more acres of public land per population in Minnesota than all but a few sparsely settled western states. We have the aforementioned national and federal areas, plus state parks, state forests, state wildlife management areas, scenic and natural areas, even county tax-forfeited lands that are accessible.

We even passed a state constitutional amendment assuring our citizens that hunting and fishing "are a valued part of our heritage that shall be forever preserved for the people and shall be managed ... for the public good."

Quite a departure from what my ancestors left behind in Germany and Bohemia when they emigrated to the good old U.S. of A.

We owe our continued freedom and independence to visionary early politicians and revolutionaries, as well as to those who have fought - and some who died - to maintain our way of life. We can also be thankful that the principle of broad rights for the common man is also woven through the fabric of our history.

Related Topics: INSIDE THE OUTDOORS
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