Collectivist ideological entitlement hilariously meets Get-Off-My-Lawn entitlement on Northern California’s Russian River in Outside magazine.
For neighbors in Harreldâ€™s quiet river community, 90 minutes northwest of San Francisco, the image of the then 43-year-old starting his day in the sand had become a regular, if provocative, sight. Several times a week, heâ€™d plant himself in a folding chair overlooking a gentle bend in the mellow Russian River. Sometimes a buddy joined him; other times he sat alone. The job was simple: Enjoy the beach. Sip coffee. Maybe spot an otter slithering up the lazy current. Most of all, do these things in clear view of the camera hidden in the trees.
The man whoâ€™d hung the camera believed that Harreld was trespassing. Harreld believed he was reclaiming land that belonged to the people. On a literal level, thatâ€™s all the two were fighting about: just 20 feet of gravelly beach.
But at the heart of the fight swirled bigger and fundamentally contradictory ideas. Remarkably basic questions about America itself were woven through their dispute. There would be no bloodshedâ€”the same could not be said elsewhereâ€”but the level of fury would nevertheless become shocking for the once friendly neighbors.
Harreld and his wife, Judith, live in a one-story home a short stroll from the river, with sunflowers and a tomato garden out front. …
On this June day, as he walked down the dirt path to the beach for morning sentry duty, he was pursuing his newest hobby: being the Rosa Parks of obscure riparian law.
Fifty yards or so above this quiet stretch of the river is a vacation home owned by Mark Oâ€™Flynn, a lawyer from San Francisco. Nearly four years ago, Oâ€™Flynn posted his first NO TRESPASSING sign. Like many property owners, he had come to equate public access with broken glass, poop in the bushes, and bad music blaring from drunk strangersâ€™ speakers.
The problem, as Harreld saw it: the sign stood in flagrant violation of federal law. As he would explain to anyone whoâ€™d listen, the beach was subject to a public easement below a line called the ordinary high-water markâ€”a calculation roughly analogous to the average high tide. In 1981, the U.S. Supreme Court confirmed in Montana v. United States that this easement trumps private ownership in navigable rivers.
Navigability, in turn, is established by proving that the river has qualified as a â€œhighway of commerce,â€ used by ferries carrying tourists, say, or loggers floating felled trees downstream, both of which happened on the Russian River.
In other words, Harreld believed, that gravelly beach was everyoneâ€™s to enjoy, regardless of what signs were posted.
Harreld had known Oâ€™Flynn socially. His house is a minuteâ€™s walk away, and Harreld and his wife had been over for dinner. When he saw the sign, he e-mailed Mark to ask if it was his. Indeed, Mark replied.
There would be no more neighborly meals. Over the years that followed, a full-on cold war blossomed. Someone would run a shin-high line of wire across the path. One of Harreldâ€™s allies would remove it. Oâ€™Flynn would hang cameras in the trees. Someone would paint over the latest NO TRESPASSING sign.
And now, on this Thursday morning in 2015, Harreld and some friends approached the beach only to find the path blocked by â€œcut bamboo, tree branches and matts of algae,â€ according to the June 18 entry in a detailed journal heâ€™s been keeping since the conflict started. The next day, the group began removing the makeshift barricade, and Oâ€™Flynn ran out of his house.
What ensued borders on slapstick, with Oâ€™Flynn, according to Harreld, â€œpulling the bamboo out of my hands, then dashing over to pull some out of my friendâ€™s hands, then dashing back to me.â€ (I donâ€™t have Oâ€™Flynnâ€™s account; he wonâ€™t discuss the dispute in detail.) Soon two sheriffâ€™s deputies arrived, but they declined to take action.
Perhaps at this point youâ€™re marveling at the amount of free time that middle-aged white men have. I marveled, too. But as I got deeper into the dispute, I came to see that this picayune squabble wasnâ€™t all that it seemed. Behind the folly of turf wars and the arcana of river law, a larger conflict was playing out, one rooted in a profound disagreement over how we think about nature and how we divide it.
Personally, I find it easy to detest both sides: the city jerks who purchase a quarter acre in the country, and then right up go the No Trespassing signs! are just about as objectionable as the ideologically-driven busy-bodies patting themselves on the back for pushing their way onto people’s backyards to prove a petty legal point and to assert a collective right over private property.