Randy Evans, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) western regional enforcement captain at New Ulm, said the court case revolved around two deer hunters who were cited by a DNR conservation officer for trespassing on CRP land in Rice County. The individuals were prepared to plead guilty to the charge, but the judge would not accept the plea and the county attorney subsequently dismissed the charge.
"What that case did," Evans explained, "was convince us to take a real hard look at the trespass law as it pertains to agricultural lands. We did that and decided that how we were interpreting the law needed to be changed."
Under Minnesota's current trespass law, lands classified as agricultural do not need to be posted to keep recreational users out. Agricultural land is defined as land that is either plowed or tilled, has standing crops or crop residue, or is within a maintained fence for domestic livestock.
Back in the mid-1980s, when conservation programs such as CRP and RIM were new, the plantings looked like agricultural land and were considered as such in the Minnesota Hunting and Trapping Regula-tions booklet.
"Over time, however, those lands grew up and no longer resembled ag land at all," Evans stated. "Nevertheless, we continued to enforce the trespass law on those acres as if they were ag land. That meant they did not have to be posted and permission was required to enter those lands."
That all changed with the court decision in Rice County.
"(CRP land) used to be considered agricultural, so landowners did not have to post it to keep hunters out," explained local DNR officer Chuck Nelson.
Now landowners will have to post their land if they want to keep other hunters out. Hunters on unposted land still need to leave immediately if asked by the landowner.
Nelson, who wasn't sure how big a problem this change might cause this fall, reminded landowners to be sure to sign their No Trespassing signs in order to make them legally binding.
Evans said that, based on the Rice County case, "it would have been foolish for us to send officers out to investigate trespassing complaints when, in fact, any charges filed would not hold up in court. Our enforcement actions are now consistent with the court's decision."
With the interpretation change, lands enrolled in programs such as CRP, Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP), and Reinvest in Minnesota (RIM) are no longer considered agricultural lands and thus must be posted if the landowner does not want others to enter onto that land.
"That is really going to make life easier for both the landowner and us in the enforcement field," Evans said. "First of all, posting the land protects the rights of the property owner by giving the landowner the full backing of the law and by making it clear to hunters and others that they are not to enter without permission. In the past there was some confusion, particularly with hunters who looked at such land, concluded it was not agricultural land, and assumed that if it was not posted they could legally enter. It also provides enforcement officers with clear direction when encountering situations involving a trespass violation."
Additionally, Evans noted, the process for posting land against trespassing has been simplified, thanks to a 1996 law change. Evans said the changes "have not only made it easier to post land, but have also put more teeth into the law as far as enforcing the trespass law in Minnesota." Evans said the DNR supported the changes and believes it will "eventually lead to improved relationships between landowners and outdoors enthusiasts, particularly hunters."
Even though a notice was published and a general news release was sent out in August advising landowners of the change, DNR Commissioner Allen Garber said, "I think we could have done more sooner to let landowners know about the new interpretation."
The DNR, Garber stated, strongly recommends that individuals seeking to recreate on private property "always ask first, regardless of whether the land meets the definition of agricultural land or not. That in itself would go a long way toward improving relationships with private landowners and would be in everyone's best interest."
To legally post CRP, CREP, or RIM lands, landowners are only obligated to post the land once per year. "All you need to do is to be able to verify that the sign was indeed up at one point," said Randy Evans, a DNR enforcement captain. "Someone else who could verify that the sign was up is sufficient, or you might want to take a picture of the sign."
In addition to only having to post the land once per year, landowners no longer have to post as many signs as previously required. To be legally posted as listed on page 10 of the 2000 hunting synopsis, land must have signs:
along the boundaries every 1,000 feet or less, or in wooded areas where boundaries are less clear, at intervals of 500 feet or less; or
at the primary corners of each parcel of land and at access roads and trails at points of entrance to each parcel, except corners only accessible through agricultural land need not be posted;
letters must be at least two inches high and the sign must include the signature or the legible name and telephone number of the owner, occupant, lessee or authorized manager. An unauthorized person may not post land with signs prohibiting outdoor recreation or trespass.
Violating the Minnesota trespass law can now make an individual subject to either civil or criminal penalties. Civil penalties are: $50 for the first violation; $200 for the second violation in a three-year period; $500 and loss of every license and registration being used for a third or subsequent violation in a three-year period; $50 for unauthorized removal of a sign posted under this law.
Criminal penalties are at least a misdemeanor for violation of this law. In addition, it becomes a gross misdemeanor to knowingly disregard signs prohibiting trespass, trespass after being told not to do so, or to violate the trespass law twice within a three-year period.
Anyone convicted under the criminal procedures of violating the trespass law while hunting, fishing, trapping, or snowmobiling will have the applicable license and registration for that activity revoked. Anyone convicted of a gross misdemeanor under this law will have all hunting privileges suspended for two years.
A landowner who gives written or oral permission for the use of the land for recreational purposes without charge does not, by that action:
extend any assurance that the land is safe for any purpose;
confer upon the person the legal status of an invitee or licensee to whom a duty of care is owed;
assume responsibility for or incur liability for any injury to the person or property caused by an act or omission of the person.
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