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A United Kingdom court ruled on Monday that members of the public don’t need landowners’ permission to wild camp in Dartmoor National Park anymore. This decision reversed a lower court’s ruling and restored the park’s status as the only place in England or Wales where backpackers have the right to pitch a tent outside of the confines of a campsite.
Where American national parks are protected public lands administered directly by the federal government, parks in England are mostly a patchwork of private holdings, and often contain working farms, residences, businesses, and even towns. A hiker’s right to walk across privately owned land is governed by a 23-year-old law that allows hikers access to paths based on a history of public use. (At least in theory: As Brooke Jarvis reports in The New York Times Magazine, many landowners have taken questionably legal steps to prevent the public from accessing their property.) In most cases, however, visitors are limited to dayhikes, as the law doesn’t allow overnight access. For decades, Dartmoor National Park was the exception, thanks to a 1985 law that allowed hikers to dispersed camp based on historic custom.
This January, however, two of the parks’ largest landowners, Alexander and Diana Darwall, sued to overturn that rule, arguing that camping fell outside of the protections of the law. High Court judge Sir Julian Flaux agreed, ruling that there was “no local custom of camping which [had] the force of law,” and the Darwalls could legally ban campers from their 4,000-acre estate.
While park authorities quickly reached an agreement with most of Dartmoor’s landowners to continue allowing wild camping in exchange for an undisclosed payment, some advocates bristled at the deal, which they saw as paying tribute to the small number of disproportionately aristocratic property owners who hold much of England’s land. Speaking to The Guardian, Guy Shrubsole, one of the leaders of the pro-access group Right to Roam, called it “a ransom note from landowners who will be allowed to revoke permission at any time.”
The country’s National Park Authority and another nonprofit, Open Spaces Society, appealed the decision. At issue was whether sleeping inside a tent counted as an “outdoor” activity, with lawyers for the Darwalls arguing that erecting a structure, even a temporary one, fell outside the auspices of the law. On July 31, the court disagreed, with Lord Justice Nicholas Underhill saying that “the fact that a tent is closed rather than open cannot convert the wild camping from being an open-air recreation into not being one.” With this, the right to dispersed camp without landowner permission returned to the public.
While land-access advocates in England celebrated the decision, some said the ruling didn’t go far enough in protecting backpackers’ right to camp at large. In a tweet, Shrubsole said it was time for England to pass a Scottish-style Right to Roam law, which would create a presumed right for the public to access unbuilt, uncultivated land. On his own Twitter account, Luke Pollard, a Labour member of parliament who represents nearby Plymouth Sutton and Devonport, posted that his party would pass a Right to Roam bill if it returned to power, and challenged the current Conservative government to do the same.