MADISON - In January of 2017, representatives of the Wisconsin Conservation Congress, La Crosse Conservation Alliance, and the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation delivered petitions containing more than 5,000 signatures to the Governor and legislative leaders in Madison.
The petition, which began to be circulated in November 2016, calls for legislative action to restore the right of the public to legally step across railroad right of way to gain access to public land and water.
The petition states: For over 100 years, state law allowed the public to directly cross railroad tracks in Wisconsin. Now, Wisconsin citizens are denied this safe traditional legal access to hundreds of miles of wild public Wisconsin land and water due to an unjustified law change in 2006. DNR identified 134 former RR crossings to the Mississippi River, which cannot be used because of the threat of trespass. In addition 121 DNR wildlife areas, fishery areas, forests, natural areas and parks have RR crossings which makes access to major portions of those properties difficult, or in some cases, impossible to access without trespassing due to the 2006 law change.
For over 100 years it was legal and safe for people to step across railroad right of way to access public lands and waters. Almost all fatalities of people on foot are at dedicated crossings, not those just stepping directly across the right of way for recreational purposes. A bill to restore the right for the public to legally step across the railroad right of way passed the Assembly late in the 2016 legislative season, but was not considered by a senate committee. Anglers, hunters, birders, trappers, photographers, hikers, cross-country skiers, resort owners, business leaders, tourism leaders, local government officials, agency staff, sheriffs, judges and district attorneys have expressed their concern about the loss of this long held right to access public lands and waters.
Natural Resources Board
On Wednesday, January 25, 2017, in Madison, Larry Bonde, Chairperson of the Wisconsin Conservation Congress; Mark Schultz, President of the LaCrosse County Conservation Alliance; George Meyer, Excecutive Director of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation; Dan Trawicki, Board Member of Safari Club International Wisconsin; and Mark Clements of Clements Fishing Barge in Genoa delivered the petitions to the Natural Resource Board meeting.
At the meeting, the board unanimously passed the following Public Land Access Resolution:
WHEREAS, in Wisconsin prior to 2005 Act 179, the public could legally walk directly across railroad tracks outside of designated road crossings;
WHEREAS, 2005 Act 179 prohibited walking directly across railroad tracks except at designated road crossings;
WHEREAS, 2005 Act 179 significantly restricted access to thousands of acres of public land in Wisconsin to hunters, anglers, trappers and nature observers;
WHEREAS, concerned citizens and groups utilizing these public lands in Wisconsin have appeared before the Natural Resource Board requesting Board support to help restore statutory authority existing prior to the passage of 2005 Act 179;
WHEREAS, the Natural Resources Board is a partner with the Wisconsin Legislature and Governor in the development of natural resource policy in the state, to manage public’s resources for all citizens to use and enjoy, and provide opportunity for enjoyment through landownership and access.
NOW, THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED, by the Natural Resources Board, that this Board formally encourages the Wisconsin Legislature and Governor to work to find a solution to provide access to public lands across railroad tracks.
Approved this 25th day of January 2017 by the Natural Resources Board at its meeting in Madison, Wisconsin.
“For a body of individuals who are political appointees to pass such a strong resolution unanimously is almost unheard of, Meyer said.
Meyer should know. He is currently Executive Director of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation. Before that, he spent a total of 32 years in public service, working for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. Eight of those years were spent as the Secretary of the DNR.
George Meyer, reports the group also delivered the petitions with the signatures to Governor Scott Walker; to Representative Lee Nerison, 96th Assembly District; to Representative Joel Kleefisch, 38th Assembly District and Chair of the Assembly Natural Resources Committee; and Senator Van Waangaard, 21st Senate District and Chair of the Senate Public Safety Committee.
“Representative Nerison communicated to me that he intends to introduce a bill this legislative season to restore a citizen’s right to legally cross the railroad tracks,” Meyer said. “But it is critical that concerned citizens contact Governor Walker about this.”
Meyer was quick to point out that this issue goes beyond the tracks running next to the Mississippi River.
“Devil’s Lake State Park has railroad tracks running right through it,” Meyer pointed out. “Realistically, that means that approximately 100,000 citizens break the law by trespassing every year when they visit the park.”
“There’s a lot of talk in this debate about the railroads eminent domain,” Mark Schultz commented. “What that actually means is that the public has rights within the purpose for which the railroads exist.”
Efforts to reverse the 2006 law started with a provision in the 2016 state budget that would have restored the public’s legal right to directly cross railroad tracks at places other than designated crossings. The measure was in the budget passed by both 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 (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 (La Crosse), Kathleen Vinehout (Alma), and Howard Marklein (Spring Green) sponsored the senate version of the bill.
However, Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Committee Chairperson Van Wanggard (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.
On April 21, 2016, Senator Jennifer Shilling held two listening sessions, one in Stoddard, and the other in De Soto, along with Wisconsin Railroad Commissioner Yash Wadhwa.
Wadhwa and his team identified 11 potential crossings that could be developed to increases citizen access. Each crossing would have potential to cost $30,000 to $50,000 for a private crossing, and as much as $500,000 for a public crossing. No money has been budgeted for the work.
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.
“Building more crossings is an idea that is ridiculous on its face,” said Marc Schultz of the La Crosse Conservation Congress. “Nobody is getting hurt out there crossing the tracks for recreation, and nobody wants to spend all that money and then still not really fix the problem.”
Senator Kathleen Vinehout, 31st Senate District (Alma), was one of the co-sponsors of the companion bill in the Senate of the bill introduced by Nerison and passed by the Assembly in 2016.
“My office got lots of phone calls when the petitions were being circulated,” Vinehout said. “I strongly believe that citizens should be able to cross the tracks wherever they want to.”
Vinehout shared that after the Natural Resources Board passed their resolution in January, it seemed the railroads decided to back away from their law enforcement strategy and to focus on public education.
The State Senator said that the railroad had also expanded their thinking about where they could install additional designated crossings that would better fit with citizen wishes.
“Expanding the number of crossings will never be the solution to the problem,” Vinehout said. “The judges I have talked to about this don’t agree that the railroad police should be arresting citizens for crossing the tracks, and weren’t interested in having these cases brought to their bench.”