North Dakota Should Restore Property Rights by Ending the Presumption of Access to Private Land

There are a lot of politics behind SB2225, introduced by Republican state Senator Don Schaible of Mott.

Under current law North Dakotans are allowed to go on private land for purposes like hunting as long as they a) aren’t told verbally to leave or b) the land isn’t legally posted. Schaible’s bill would end that presumption of access, setting a new standard requiring legal permission.

This takes the burden off land owners who, under current law, must maintain signage to keep people off their property and instead puts it on those wishing to access the land.

You could say that the most immediate justification for the legislation were the often violent, often unlawful #NoDAPL protests. A big obstacle to prosecuting many of the protesters who were clearly guilty of trespass was proving that the land where they were trespassing was lawfully posted. Under current law land owners must post conspicuous signs bearing their signatures, but it’s all too easy to tear down those signs and claim they were never up.

The burden for closing off land to public access shouldn’t be on the land owner. That’s as absurd as saying that you must have a “no trespassing” sign on your front door to prevent the public from waltzing into your living room.

Under Schaible’s bill the signs would be a moot point.

But there has been a larger political struggle between land owners and sportsmen at the heart of which has been land access. The sportsmen say land owners just want to close off their land so they can charge for access. They see getting permission to access land as too arduous a task. But landowners say sportsmen often disrespect their rights by leaving behind trash, vandalizing fences, and harming crops/livestock.

Complicating all of this are left wing conservation groups like Ducks Unlimited making themselves the enemies of land owners. During the 2014 election cycle Ducks Unlimited and other groups backed Measure 5, a constitutional amendment which would have given them a massive slush fund fueled by state oil tax revenues. It was a flop, and a big reason why was the seething resentment land owners feel toward sportsmen and their affiliated groups who carry on as though they are co-owners of the land.

Were sportsmen in North Dakota a bit more respectful of property owners, were groups like Ducks Unlimited a bit less aggressive in their moves to undermine property rights, there would be less necessity for Schaible’s bill.

As it stands, the need for it is clear. Property owners in North Dakota want to protect their land, which for many of them is the foundation of their livelihoods.

They should have that right. The burden for closing off land to public access shouldn’t be on the land owner. That’s as absurd as saying that you must have a “no trespassing” sign on your front door to prevent the public from waltzing into your living room.

I hope SB2225 passes, but the political fight is uphill. Those who own the land in North Dakota’s rural areas are outnumbered both in the general population and in the Legislature by those from urban areas many of whom see the land not as private property but their play areas for hunting, snowmobiling, etc.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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