Western Wisconsin’s hunters, fishers, trappers and other outdoors people are very interested in retaining or regaining their rights to access public lands by crossing railroad tracks to get there.
If the two heavily attended recent listening sessions are any indication, the outdoors people spoke with a unified voice—they want to gain access to public lands, often along the Mississippi River, by crossing train tracks. Suggestions of constructing a couple of dozen more private and public crossings in critical access-restricted areas were rejected as inadequate to address access problems. There are more than 200 miles of wildlife refuge along the river with most of it bordered by railroad tracks.
The issue has come to the forefront lately as the Burlington Northern & Santa Fe railroad police started advising those crossing the tracks to get to public lands that they were trespassing. What BNSF was doing was invoking their right to deem crossing tracks at non-designated crossings to be trespassing and take actions to stop it.
Outdoors people have been crossing the tracks to gain access to the river and the public land along it for more than 100 years. Then, in 2005 at the railroad’s request as part of the state budget bill, a change was included that made such crossings illegal. Enforcement of that provision as it applied to the outdoors people did not begin until last year.
The railroad insists that they need to prohibit people from crossing the tracks, except at designated public and private crossings, for safety reasons. That point was hotly contested by those attending last Thursday’s listening sessions.
How did we get here? What caused Wisconsin State Senator Jennifer Shilling (D-LaCrosse) to schedule the listening sessions in DeSoto and Stoddard last week?
It started with a provision in the most recent state budget that would have restored the public’s legal right to directly cross railroad tracks at places other than designated crossings. This would have effectively reversed the change made in 2005 that made it trespassing and illegal to cross the tracks anywhere expect at a designated crossing. The recent measure was in the budget passed by houses of the Wisconsin State Legislature. However, Governor Scott Walker vetoed the provision allowing people to directly cross railroad tracks. The measure was removed from the budget bill, which the governor ultimately signed.
Undeterred, Wisconsin State Representative Lee Nerison (R-Westby) reintroduced the change to allow track crossing as stand-alone legislation in the last session of the legislature. Nerison’s bill found support in the Wisconsin State Assembly, where it was passed. The bill was sent to the Wisconsin State Senate for consideration. Senators Jennifer Shilling (D-LaCrosse), Senator Kathleen Vinehout (D-Eau Claire) and Senator Howard Marklein (R- Spring Green) sponsored the senate version of the bill. However, Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Committee Chairperson Van Wanggard (R-Racine) refused to schedule the bill for a hearing. It died in the committee without ever going before the full state senate for a vote.
For her part, Shilling started the first listening session in DeSoto promptly at 11 a.m. She welcomed the 75 or 80 people present for the scheduled one-hour session. The local politician informed those present that the session was designed as an opportunity for residents to ask questions and air concerns.
Shilling acknowledged the importance of the railroad as an integral part of the Wisconsin economy, as well its role in the history of LaCrosse. However, she also noted the longstanding tradition of generations of men, women and children using the river.
Shilling told the group she hoped the listening session would provide an update on the situation for sportsmen, the fish and wildlife service and railroad. The senator noted the railroad was proposing to create additional public and private crossings at potential cost of $15,000 to $250,000 each depending on the complexity involved.
On hand for the listening sessions in DeSoto and Stoddard last Thursday, in addition to Senator Shilling were the recently appointed Wisconsin Commissioner of Railroads Yash Wadhwa and Tim Yager, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services Upper Mississippi River Wildlife and Fish Refuge Deputy Manager.
Wadhwa told those present at both that he was born and raised in New Delhi, India. He has an education in civil and environmental engineering. He started an engineering consulting firm in 1983 and sold it in 2004. Working as an employed manager for the company for the past 11 years.
Governor Scott Walker appointed Wadhwa to serve as the railroad commissioner in January. He stated that in discussing the position with the governor before accepting it, the only focus of the discussion at the meeting was the need to resolve the access across the tracks in western Wisconsin.
The railroad commissioner emphasized that his office’s major responsibly is to insure railroad safety.
“My goal is to make railroads in Wisconsin as safe as possible,” Wadhwa said.
For his part, U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s Tim Yager acknowledged the refuge operated in four states on both sides of the river and in almost all cases the railroad is the refuge’s “neighbor.”
“The refuge wants to provide public access,” Yager told the group.
In answer to an initial statement by Daniel Knapek, DeSoto, the railroad commissioner said a list of locations where access could be provided by construction of additional private or public crossings was being compiled. As of earlier in the week, 26 such locations had been identified, Wadhwa said.
He listed the DNR, USFW, BNSF and the Wisconsin Department of Transportation as among those who would share in the cost of creating the new crossings.
William Howe, Prairie du Chien, warned there would be repercussions, when they put the first person in jail for trying to cross the tracks to get to the river.
Howe questioned how much the railroad was even operating on their own lands anymore. He noted a lot has changed in 150 years.
Howe went on to caution the railroad that they would want to “work with us,” and would not want to go forward into the the future “without us.”
Greg Koelker, Stoddard, was the first of many speakers in the sessions that would question whether safety was a major issue for those crossing the tracks on foot. He said most of those killed or injured on the railroad tracks were “suicidal, drunk or protesters.”
Although the access across the tracks has often been framed as a western Wisconsin concern involving public lands along the Mississippi River, the next speaker took issue with regional nature of the problem
Retired Waukesha County Sheriff Dan Trawicki, currently representing the Safari Club, drove across the state to make his point at the DeSoto listening session.
“It’s not just a Mississippi River problem,” Trawicki said. He explained that the Vernon March in Waukesha County, which is used as a large recreational area, is bisected by a railroad track.
Like others, the retired sheriff took issue with the safety concerns involved with crossing train tracks. The railroad lobby cannot point to a single hunter injured crossing tracks, according to Trawicki. He noted those injured or killed want to get hit or are drunk or really stupid.
“People with any amount of common sense won’t have a problem crossing railroad tracks,” Trawicki said.
Senator Shilling thanked Trawicki from coming from the Milwaukee area to make his point that it was not only a western Wisconsin issue.
Later during the Stoddard listening session, Mike Winder, a trapper from Boscobel also described access problems of not being able to cross railroad tracks of the Southern Wisconsin Railroad along Highway 60, separating it from the Wisconsin River Bottoms. Widner described an extra 12 miles of car travel, followed by a two-mile boat ride back across the river and several miles of walking just to get to place on the Wisconsin River that could be accessed in minutes by crossing the Southern Wisconsin tracks.
It turned out that Trawicki was not the only sheriff that would make comments in the listening sessions. Vernon County Sheriff John Spears had plenty to say later at the Stoddard session.
Spears told the group that he had grown up in Victory and DeSoto. He informed the group that there would be no tickets issued to anyone going fishing by Vernon County Sheriff’s Department Deputies.
In a conversation with Wadhwa and others it was determined that BNSF railroad police officer had not arrested anyone nor issued any citations. However, he was warning individuals they would be trespassing if they crossed the tracks. About six or seven people who were approached by the BNSF police officer.
While Spears seemed to believe no one had received a ticket and the BNSF officer appeared polite and courteous in his office, he was still opposed to the policy of issuing tickets for trespassing to people crossing the track to go fishing.
“Anybody that gets arrested for this is not spending one minute in my jail,” Spears said.
Deputies would talk to anyone they found “screwing around on railroad tracks,” Spears stated, but the sheriff’s department was not interested in stopping fishermen from crossing the tracks to get to the river.
The sheriff felt prohibiting people from crossing the track to get to the river was “ridiculous.”
“Guys, the river rats are not going away,” Spears said.
Victory resident Esther Fox added another perspective to the discussion at the Stoddard session. She told the group that she took her two-year-old son to the river to fish. They crossed at the designated crossing. When they returned a BNSF train had arrived and blocked that crossing. She and her son waited two-and-a-half hours and the train still had not moved despite her call to 1-800 number reporting the situation to a BNSF employee. Finally, she crawled under the train with her son to get home.
Fox noted state law says trains should only block crossings for less than 10 minutes or be fined $500.
“Where were the tickets there? Fox asked.
For his part, Wadhwa agreed with Fox that she was absolutely correct in stating the details of State Statute 192.292.
“Unfortunately, the Federal Railroad Administration has a little different idea,” the railroad commissioner said. “And, they can override it.”
“This the State of Wisconsin,” Fox replied.
Wadhwa noted there were “a lot of exceptions” and the rules governing trains were “complicated.”
Interestingly, two employees or former employees of BNSF spoke out at the Stoddard session.
Vernon, a Stoddard resident, spent 40 years with the railroad company, including 29 as an engineer. He noted he had involvement with two suicides over the years and “it’s not a good feeling.” The veteran engineer said the experience leaves a person second-guessing themselves about what happened.
On the safety issue, Vern advocated teaching safely crossing railroad tracks in the schools or hunter safety classes.
On the other hand, Vern said he could see both sides of the track crossing issue—the fishermen and the railroad company.
“I’m a big advocate for crossing the railroad tracks,” Vern said. “I hunt and fish.”
In answer to Fox’s comments about BNSF trains blocking crossings, he said the company did contact engineers of trains that were reported. He noted employees were disciplined over such matters and lists of blocked crossing were kept and checked.
Another Stoddard resident with 13 years of experience working for the railroad company said there were no fishermen he knew of involved in accidents with trains, as the crossed the tracks. Larry Brinkman said that 90 percent of accidents dealt with crossings at grade and the next biggest source of death or injury was suicides.
At both listening sessions, it was pointed out to the officials present that holding midday meetings on weekdays was keeping lots of working people and students from attending. Both sessions tended to be populated by older people with the majority of them being male.
Senator Shilling told the person pointing this out at the Stoddard session that she was impressed with the crowds at both the DeSoto and Stoddard sessions both in their size and the substance of the discussion. There were about 90 to 100 people in Stoddard.
However, the man said that the media in reporting the size of the crowd would be describing a much smaller crowd than would have attended a meeting scheduled for more convenient times.
Overwhelmingly, the opinion at the listening sessions was that the right to cross tracks to gain access to the river and the public land adjoining it had to be restored as it was prior to the 2005 change. Virtually no one saw safety of outdoors people crossing the tracks as a legitimate concern, including two county sheriffs who addressed the issue. Some at the meetings favored education to be offered about safety in crossing railroad tracks. Virtually no one favored building 26 new crossings over the 200 miles of track and felt they would not adequately address the access questions.