Send Letter to Editor
A sign of the times? Dean Tvedt, © 1997
You're buzzing down the back roads on a warm, sunny day. The windows are rolled down part way and your dog is sniffing and snorting all the new smells. You zip past a wildlife area thinking it would be a nice place to let the dog stretch his legs. Is your pet welcome there?
You're planning a family outing and you remember a nearby public fishing grounds with great birdlife and scattered pockets of wildflowers. Can you picnic there? Or you wonder if your family is welcome to walk the trails on a school forest. Signs mark a wide variety of public parcels throughout Wisconsin, but it's not clear what activities are welcome on public property.
"Most people want to do the right thing," says Doug Fendry, Chief of DNR's Land Management Section. "They are not interested in trespassing, or breaking the law when visiting public lands. They want to know where they can get out and explore a new area. We ought to make that easier for them."
"At one level, it seems pretty simple," Fendry adds. "After all, public lands exist for public use. But every parcel cannot accommodate every activity, so we need to give people better information. Often, this has meant posting signs. We need to find ways to let people know what is allowed on the property without intimidating the visitor.
It's not easy to determine who owns a public parcel. Schools, towns, cities, counties, state and federal governments may manage land differently, Fendry said. Even if the land is posted with the manager's phone number, there are often no phones available and most people use sites on weekends, early evenings and holidays when offices are typically closed.
Most public lands are open for hiking , picnicking and berry-picking. Some allow hunting and fishing. Generally, the courts require that public sites be posted with signs listing what is prohibited rather than what is allowed.
"That's not very friendly, and it doesn't make people feel especially welcome, but over the years the courts felt it was clearer to list what is not allowed on a property," Fendry said.
"We'd prefer to post signs telling people they should use these properties as long as they don't do something that endangers their own health or safety, the health and safety of others or damages the environment. For instance, I'd much rather post a sign that says 'Please keep your horses on marked trails' than 'Horses restricted to marked trails.'" However, courts have said if we use the word 'please' it is more of a request than a demand, and we would lose leverage to stop that rare visitor who decides to act more selfishly.
"Other places, like our State Natural Areas are sensitive. They contain parcels with endangered or threatened plants that could be trampled and serve as important breeding sites for some species.
"It is getting people to understand the distinction between picking berries and digging up trilliums; that line between exploring a pond and collecting the tadpoles to take them home; the difference between watching minnows swim on a stream and collecting bait on state waters for commercial purposes. We want to let people know about restrictions without having to plaster signs all over."
Camping is another matter. On most DNR properties, camping is restricted to those areas posted as designated campsites. That's a practical decision, because campers typically want a few amenities like restrooms, drinking water, trash collection, a fire ring, a level place to pitch a tent, a nearby parking spot and, perhaps, electricity. It's not possible to provide those services at the many properties that are not staffed, Fendry said.
How about parking? On some public properties like public fishing grounds there is an access sign, but it's unclear where you should park.
"As long as the local municipality has not posted the road as closed to parking, all you have to do is get off the road, well onto the shoulder so you are not obstructing traffic," Fendry said. "Where a set-aside parking area is more obvious, that's where we would typically post any regulatory signs and trail information.
The department also posts wildlife viewing area signs along highways directing people to properties where opportunities to see wild animals are outstanding at different times of the year. These signs complement the Wildlife Viewing Guide produced by the DNR Bureau of Wildlife Management.
Different postings at different properties
Some signs are merely informational and don't indicate public access. Signs indicating where wetlands, streams or prairies have been restored are erected to thank the partners who helped fund a project. For instance, Ducks Unlimited and Trout Unlimited erect signs on projects, but the signs don't indicate how the property can be used.
The boundaries of National Wildlife Refuges are posted with a flying goose symbol, but these federal lands are not open to all activities. More information is typically provided at nearby parking lots or at the property headquarters. These buildings are usually marked on state highway maps and phone numbers are listed in local phone directories.
Waterfowl Production Areas are federal properties managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. These marshes, ponds, dikes, cover and food patches serve as breeding grounds and rest areas for migrating waterfowl.
Signs on federal property saying "Open to Public Hunting" do not mean the land is open for hiking or open to public uses outside of established hunting seasons. A sign stating "Use of Firearms Restricted to Legal Hunting Only" means you can't use the area for target shooting or sighting-in your firearm. Since each National Wildlife Refuge is unique in the kinds of public uses allowed on the property, contact the nearest U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service office to find out when the site is open to hunting, hiking and other uses.
The rules on DNR properties are a little easier to interpret. The Department of Natural Resources manages trails, public fishing grounds, natural areas, state parks, state forests, fish hatcheries, recreational areas, islands, boat accesses, flowages, fire towers, buildings and wild rivers. Unless a site is posted as closed or closed for certain activities, all state lands are open for traditional recreational uses including walking, nature study, berry picking, hunting and fishing. Almost all of these sites can be visited free of charge. Fees are primarily charged at state parks and trails to cover the costs of roads, picnic areas, trails, campgrounds, maintenance and other amenities provided on parklands.
The intersections of State Park Trails and public roads are marked to direct riders to nearby amenities and indicate where trail passes can be purchased. State Park Trails are not open to public hunting. On the other hand, State Recreation Trails – including snowmobile and ATV trails – may be open for other uses at the discretion of the landowner.
Generally on DNR lands open to public hunting, dogs must be kept on a leash during the breeding seasons for birds (April 15th through July 31st). Also motorized vehicles are restricted to designated trails. Most state parks are closed from 11 p.m. until 6 a.m. except at designated campsites. Camping is restricted to designated sites and campgrounds. However, you can camp on the state-owned sandbars of the Mississippi River and Lower Wisconsin Riverway and you can get a backpacking permit to camp outside of campgrounds on the state forests.
Public Hunting Grounds are available for public uses year round, including hunting during established seasons. A lot of these properties are used for hiking, bird watching, and taking the dog for a walk, Fendry said.
State Forests are vast areas that provide timber management and public recreation. Motorized activities like snowmobiling are restricted to designated trails.
State Natural Areas preserve unique natural features. Restrictions on these fragile lands are also posted. It's okay to look at wild trillium, but you can't pick flowers, dig up plants, remove trees or gather seeds on state properties. State code spells it out this way: Visitors can't destroy, molest or attempt to remove any natural growth or natural archaeological feature except edible fruits, nuts, wild mushrooms or asparagus at most state properties. On State Natural Areas (SNAs), even wild food gathering is prohibited. Rocks in small quantities can also be collected except on SNAs, wild rivers, state parks, state trails and archaeological sites.
Hints for interpreting signs
Access by foot travel means that horses, snowmobiles, all-terrain vehicles and cars are prohibited. Believe it or not, this has a different meaning than "Vehicle Use Prohibited" which restricts the use of vehicles, including bicycles, but allows horse travel.
No Trespassing The onus used to be on property owners to post their land at set intervals (one sign per 40 acres) and at road crossings to prohibit public access or prohibit certain activities. Now any visitor must have permission to use a parcel before entering private property.
Private Lands Ahead This means you are about to leave public land and you either have to stop or have written permission to use those private lands. These signs are typically posted along the back borders of large properties which are not always fenced.
Specialty Trails Many DNR properties allow horseback riding, skiing and ATV use, but stay on designated trails.
Wisconsin Wildlife Refuges Portions of state properties may be closed to hunting as wildlife refuges. Actually, most state parks are closed to hunting except the few that are open for deer and wild turkey hunting.
State Natural Areas These properties preserve unique natural features from development, human recreation and natural changes. Restrictions on these properties are posted.
Stay on Designated Trail Indicates just that! In the absence of such a sign, you can wander the property.
Leased Lands These properties are privately owned and are only leased for certain activities during set times, as posted.
Hours Access to some properties is restricted to posted hours. The intention is to make it clear that the area is closed to overnight camping and late-night parties that disturb the peace.
Maps The Department of Natural Resources must provide or post maps of designated trails, campgrounds, picnic areas and other special use areas. These maps are available at DNR regional offices, at property offices or on signs placed by trails, campgrounds and picnic areas.
"We inspect all designated trails, campgrounds and special use areas at least twice annually," says Fendry. "We also inspect the signs because they are unfortunately used as shooting targets or are stolen. Vandalism is costly in several ways. First, it's expensive to maintain signs and that money comes from the sporting public. Second, it's illegal, and it gives the impression to nonhunters that the destruction might have been done by a hunter rather than by a vandal. Third, if a sign is illegible, a visitor may miss safety tips. Fourth, other visitors are denied the privilege of reading the provided information."
Friendlier signs to come
Fendry notes that one of the goals in reviewing sign policies is to make signs seem less restrictive and more positive. "We're drawing on expertise from our staff and visitors determine if people understand our signs, to find out if the signs are enforceable and to learn how we can meet legal requirements while still making people feel welcome on public properties," he says. Signs relay important information to ensure our public lands remain in good condition for all users. But a sign should also act as a welcome mat, encouraging people to visit, explore and enjoy the public spaces we maintain as our outdoor heritage."
David L. Sperling edits Wisconsin Natural Resources.