Norway Wants to Give Finland a Mountain

If the country succeeds, it will be the world’s best 100th-birthday gift

This marker denotes both the highest point in Finland and the border with Norway. (Creative Commons)
smithsonian.com

In 2017, Finland will celebrate 100 years of independence from Russian and Swedish rule. To honor the momentous occasion, Finland’s neighbor to the north, Norway, is considering giving the country a gift just as grand—the top of a mountain. But if it happens, the proposed present won't just be the coolest birthday gift of all kind—it could literally boost the country's cartographic profile.

Currently, Finland’s highest point isn’t a mountain—rather, it’s the side of a mountain named Halti. Halti straddles the border between Finland and Norway, with the peak right on the Norwegian side of the border. That border point is Finland’s highest spot at 4,334 feet, but the peak (a relatively whopping 4,367 feet) doesn’t even make Norway’s top 200. Since it's already blessed with mountainous bounty, the proposal is to move Norway's border about 490 feet north and 600 feet east, placing Halti’s peak firmly on the Finnish side. Then Finland would have a mountain peak—and Norway would have endless goodwill with the country.

“It sounds like a really nice gesture,” Niklas Varisto, a Finnish musician, tells Smithsonian.com. “It's not going to make a huge difference geographically, but it's not supposed to. In that case, it would be larger-scale politics and that's surely not the point.”

The campaign, which now has a Facebook page with more than 16,500 likes, has actually been in progress since 1972. At the time, Bjorn Geirr Harsson, who is now a retired employee of the Norwegian Mapping Authority, was taking measurements while flying across the border. It struck him as odd that Norway owned the peak of Halti instead of Finland. The current border is just a straight line, drawn back in the 18th century, and Harsson says that doesn’t make geophysical sense. A border movement would only relinquish about 161,500 square feet to Finland, an amount Harsson says won’t be noticeable to Norway.

As of yet, the decision to gift the mountaintop still isn’t final—but Norwegian broadcaster NRK reports that Norway’s prime minister, Erna Solberg, has acknowledged the campaign and is officially considering the gift. Local politicians in Norway are encouraging the gift alongside the public by sending letters to the government in Oslo in support of the plan. And votes to move the map are coming in from across the world via social media.

Despite what seems like overwhelming support for the proposal, not everyone agrees that the move is necessary or appropriate. While no one lives on the small section of land to be gifted, the Sami (a people indigenous to the Arctic Circle) let their reindeer freely cross the border—and that community thinks that if anyone is recognized as the owner of the mountain, it should be them.

“I think it represents a colonial understanding, a conqueror mentality that I oppose,” Aili Keskitalo, president of the Sami Parliament of Norway, told The New York Times' Dan Bilefsky and Henrik Pryser Libell. “I think it is absurd to think that you can give away something you don’t own.”

If the decision does go through, Varisto thinks it will speak volumes about generosity and the perception of Norway worldwide. “I think Finland should accept the gift and not worry about what we should give Norway back or when,” he tells Smithsonian.com. “Generosity is about giving without expecting something in return, and you should also be able to accept gifts without feeling a sense of debt. I think it is a gesture of goodwill that will affect the image of Norway positively. I hope it can also encourage us in Finland to be a bit more generous in general.”

Generous or no, the proposed gift—which is not expected to affect hiking access on the popular mountaintop—will involve some red tape. Though it's not yet clear how the transfer will take place, it will presumably involve both an official diplomatic transfer and a reshuffling by Finnish and Norwegian cartographers. But given that a Norwegian Mapping Authority official has already spoken out about how easy the transfer will be, it seems that even the people it may inconvenience don't think it will be too much trouble.

And if it is? So be it. After all, they don't call it "moving a mountain" for nothing.

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