Change coming for the right of public access?

3:50 min

The right of public access, or allemansrätten, is as ingrained in the Swedish culture as cross-country skiing, eating herring, and dancing around the maypole. The law allows anyone to roam freely in the countryside, to swim and boat, and to pick berries and mushrooms in the woods, even if you're on someone's private land.

But there is another side, one that involves companies making money on other people's property. That has sparked a debate here. Now the Swedish Environmental Agency has launched a study looking into all aspects of the right of public access law.

In Sweden, you're even allowed to camp or park a motor home on another person's land for up to 24 hours, as long as you stay far enough away from their home and garden and don't damage the nature.

But when the law was written into the constitution, lawmakers couldn't possibly have imagined that commercial interests like berry picking companies and outdoor companies running canoe trips and horseback riding would be earning money on someone else's private land.

That is the situation Sweden's Minister for the Environment, Andreas Carlgren, is dealing with now. Today he told Swedish Television that he is open to putting limitations on the right of public access law.

Ingemar Ahlström is one of Sweden's foremost experts on the right of public access law in Sweden. He says it is exactly because the law is so old and so much has changed, that you now have to take new developments into account.

“The right of public access was found in the 1940’s, in that time the outdoor life was very different from today,” he says. “Today there’s another type of leisure in the nature and another type of tourists, like snowmobiling, hiking, canoeing.”

Helena Jonsson is the President of the LRF, the Federation of Swedish Farmers, a lobby and business organization representing thousands of companies in the agricultural and forestry industry. She says that LRF wants the government to bar commercial interests from using the law as an excuse to make a profit while they are on other people's private property.

“We want to protect a person’s right to her or his land,” she says. “Today it’s possible for a company to set up a business and use other people’s land to run a scooter safari or horseback riding.”

But Per Nilsson who works at the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency says the law has never been tested in court and that there is no clear definition of what is and is not allowed.

“It’s very complicated because there’s a lot of feelings for the right of public access and a lot of Swedes feel very strong for it and support how the laws work today,” he says. “But other people like landowners don’t like the berry picking.”

The EPA has been given the difficult task of taking that contentious issue and trying to define the problems. The EPA will present the results of its study in November. Nilsson is cautious though. He can only say that the study may point to some possible solutions.