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Bill would re-establish sportsmens’ right to cross the tracks
Enjoys wide support
Mike LaBarbera
MIKE LABARBERA is the in-coming Executive Director of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, and the Bird Hunting Representative on the Wisconsin Sporting Heritage Council.

WISCONSIN - Why didn’t the angler cross the tracks?

It may sound like a joke, but Wisconsin hunters and anglers are not laughing. However, they are testifying, and a number of outdoor groups have formed a railroad crossing coalition.

They are supporting Assembly Bill 248, legislation to regain access to prime public hunting and fishing areas along the Mississippi River and across the state. Testimony was scheduled for the April 27 Assembly Transportation Committee Hearing in Madison.

Wisconsin Conservation Congress Vice-Chair Terri Roehrig urged outdoor enthusiasts to contact their legislators as she circulated a fact sheet from Wisconsin Wildlife Federation Executive Director George Meyer.

 “Historically, hunters, anglers and trappers were able to freely cross railroad tracks on public land or tracks to access public lands for hunting, fishing and trapping,” Meyer explained. “This access was codified in state statutes section 192.32 (1) (c)  which provides an exemption to trespass for any person walking directly across any railroad right-of-way or tracks.”

But that changed in 2005 with very few people noticing a few words slipped into a much larger piece of legislation with changes to railroad laws.

Subsection 29 of that law, 2005 Act 179, merely stated: “192.32 (1) (c) of the statutes is repealed.” Meyer’s WWF fact sheet explained, “In no part of the bill’s history did it discuss the impact that bill would have on the use of public lands in this state, including use for hunting, fishing and trapping.”

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources has documented that the impact of this law has eliminated 124 traditional crossings that were used by hunters, anglers and trappers for access for 150 miles to the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge.

“But this is far from just a Mississippi River problem,” Meyer said. “The Department of Natural Resources has documented that 121 DNR properties--including wildlife areas, fisheries areas, state parks, state forests and state natural area--are bisected by railroads. In order not to be in violation of the railroad trespass law, an individual walking across the property and coming to the railroad track, must walk out to the nearest road and walk back along the track in order to continue to use the property. Picture a situation where a hunter has shot a deer and, in order to track or retrieve it, may have to walk a mile out of the way, and back, in order to stay legal and to pick up the track of the deer.” 

It is not only DNR properties that are affected. 

“There are uncounted federal and county forest parcels and other public lands that have railroad tracks bisecting them,” according to the fact sheet.

There are state properties such as the Swan Lake Wildlife Area in Columbia County where a railroad track crosses the property and actually landlocks a portion of the property because of the deletion of the exemption to the railroad trespass law in 2005, according to Meyer.

 “People are aware of Wisconsin’s highly popular Devils Lake State Park, which has over one million visitors from both within and outside the state,” Meyer wrote. “They may not realize that there is an active railroad track that runs immediately adjacent and parallel to the eastern side of the lake. A highly conservative estimate would be that at least 100,000 park visitors a year cross that railroad track in locations that would be in violation of WI Stat section 192.32 (1).”

Wisconsin Conservation Congress leaders have been saying this needs to be fixed and the repealed statute needs to be re-instated.

The Wisconsin Natural Resources Board agreed. On January 25, 2017, the NRB adopted a formal resolution indicating that the 2005 Act 179 “restricted access to thousands of acres of public land in Wisconsin,” and on behalf of “hunters, anglers, trappers and nature observers…” they formally encouraged “…the Wisconsin Legislature and Governor to work to find a solution to provide access to public lands across railroad tracks.” 

In recent years, the ‘Coalition of Wisconsin Sporting Organizations for Public Access’ formed and is focusing its collective clout on the railroad issue. The coalition includes Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, Safari Club International, Wisconsin Conservation Congress, La Crosse County Alliance, Wisconsin Bear Hunters Association, Buffalo County Conservation Alliance, Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, Trout Unlimited, Wisconsin Bow Hunters Association, Trout Unlimited, Ducks Unlimited, Wisconsin Waterfowl Association, Wisconsin Trappers Association, Alma Rod and Gun Club, Mondovi Conservation Alliance and a growing number of sporting organizations.

They have been reassuring legislators that the railroad lobbyists who say their companies are concerned about liability if someone is injured crossing the tracks need not worry.

Wisconsin law (Section 895. 52, entitled: ‘Recreational activities; limitation of property owners’ liability’) provides railroads immunity from liability for sportsmen and women crossing their tracks for hunting, fishing and trapping, Meyer noted.

No joke, and there’s no reason that hunters, anglers and others should be prevented from crossing the tracks, said WCC’s Terri Roehrig.

This story was written by Mark LaBarbera, the incoming Executive Director of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation and the Bird Hunting Representative on the Wisconsin Sporting Heritage Council.