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House passes trespassing bill, but with major changes

BISMARCK, N.D. -- A bill to change North Dakota's trespassing and posting laws remained alive after a vote in the state House, though many changes sought by the House Agriculture Committee were defeated.

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(Jenny Schlecht/Agweek)

BISMARCK, N.D. - A bill to change North Dakota's trespassing and posting laws remained alive after a vote in the state House, though many changes sought by the House Agriculture Committee were defeated.

The debate on the floor of the House on Thursday, April 11, revealed numerous simmering differences of opinion along urban and rural divides and between landowners and hunters. The bill still will have to be ironed out by a conference committee.

Property owners, and agricultural property owners in particular, have been seeking changes to North Dakota's private property laws for more than a decade. North Dakota is the only state in the region in which anyone can enter private property without permission unless the land is posted for no trespassing or no hunting.

Senate Bill 2315, as passed by the Senate, would have set up a database for landowners to choose whether to mark their land open or closed to hunters. Landowners could still have chosen to physically post their land.

The version voted on by the House on Thursday was far more complicated and included the possibility of all land being closed unless hunters sought permission if an out-of-session advisory committee didn't come up with a database and other recommendations. The House instead voted on two "divisions" of the bill separately and passed the changed bill on a 55-38 vote.

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The bill that passed the House would make few changes to existing law. It would allow landowners to ask people to leave their land, even if the landowner had chosen not to post it for no trespassing, would prevent people from going on private land for reasons other than hunting and would prohibit people from guiding or outfitting on private land without permission. It also would make entering posted private land without permission a noncriminal offense for a first incident and a Class A misdemeanor for a second or subsequent incident.

Property rights provisions defeated

The bill that passed the House fell far short of what many agriculture and landowner groups wanted.

"I think we made a mistake today," Rep. Bill Tveit, R-Hazen, testified after many of the provisions a House Agriculture subcommittee put together failed.

The subcommittee of the House Agriculture Committee had put together a complicated bill that would have, as Tveit put it, offered a "hammer" to get sportsmen to the table to come up with a solution to the issue.

The original bill presented to the House on Thursday would have required a legislative study of access to public and private lands and related issues. The land advisory committee, made up of representatives of landowners, sportsmen, legislative members from both parties and the Association of Counties, with input from several state agencies, would have had to report its findings and provide recommendations regarding electronic posting of land by Aug. 1, 2020.

Until Aug. 1, 2020, the bill would have given landowners the option of marking their land as closed through an online database or through physical signs. Hunting still would have been allowed on unposted land, but entering the land for any other purpose would not have been allowed.

However, the bill also would have required that if the land access committee did not turn in recommendations by Aug. 1, 2020, the changes would not have been made. Instead, sections of law would have gone into effect on Aug. 1, 2020, to prohibit hunting on privately owned land without permission.

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While Tveit said the threat of all land being closed, as it is in surrounding states, was meant as a way to gain cooperation and compromise from hunters who have been vocally against any changes to the trespass laws. Tveit testified, echoing comments from many other representatives, that landowners have been "discouraged" by the lack of progress in changing the law and the lack of constructive dialogue on the issue.

Rep. Mike Brandenburg, R-Edgeley, and Rep. Chet Headland, R-Montpelier, said the lack of ability to keep people off private land was just one of many issues on which those in agriculture feel the opinions of others have encroached on their rights. They warned that a failure to change the state's posting laws likely will lead to more landowners posting their land for no trespassing and not allowing hunting.

"You can't work with these people. They think they own the land," Brandenburg said.

"Landowners would like people to ask for permission before they come on private land," said Rep. Luke Simons, R-Dickinson. "It's not a lot to ask. Ask yourself, would you not ask the same thing if you owned the land."

Others, however, testified that changing the land would harm the state's "heritage of hunting." Rep. Ben Koppelman, R-West Fargo, said most landowners purchased land knowing what the state's laws on property rights are, so they knew what they were getting into.

"Nobody is having anything taken away from them," he said.

He and others also objected to the idea of a non-legislative committee being tasked with finding a solution, another common complaint about the offered bill.

Related Topics: HUNTING
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