Legal Issues for Landowners
In a previous post , Bill talked about the importance of regularly walking your property boundaries. He specifically referenced a fence issue, and talking with one’s neighbor to resolve any potential disputes before they get too big. There are other reasons to monitor your boundaries and your woodlands in general, so today we’ll touch on a few of the laws in Wisconsin that relate to woodland owners and use of property.
First, there are multiple purposes for monitoring your property boundaries. If you conduct any timber harvests, including cutting trees for firewood, you want to avoid any potential timber theft issues. Harvesting a tree from your neighbor’s woodland could be costly for you. Some trees are worth thousands of dollars, and you don’t want to have to repay your neighbor for the loss of such trees after you were just clearing a path along the fenceline. You also want to be aware of any potential trespass issues. We’ll talk about your responsibilities in a moment, but you can protect yourself by being aware of how your woods are used. Property boundaries are constantly changing as land is sold and divided. Although it is their responsibility to know where they are, recreationists and hunters aren’t always aware of where they are, and what they have permission to use.
The Trespass Law (Wisconsin State Statute 943.13 1997) defines trespass as “anyone who is on your woodland property without permission”. Unless your property is listed as “open” under the Managed Forest Law program, the general public is not permitted to enter your property without permission. There was a change to the law in 1996, and the burden of knowing property boundaries was placed on recreationists. This meant that landowners no longer had to post their property boundaries in order to be covered under the trespass law. (However, this statement is followed by “unless your land is surrounded by or borders public lands like a national forest, state wildlife management area, or county park”.) With that said, it is still a good idea to clearly mark your boundaries for yourself and others.
In cases where you give permission to others to use your property, or if the property is categorized as “open” under the Managed Forest Law (MFL), the Recreational Use Statute, also known at the Berry Picker Law, applies to you. This statute “limits private property owners’ responsibility for injury to people who use their land for recreation”. There are a few exceptions to this law, for example, if you accept payment (such as a hunting lease) of more than $2,000 per year for use of your property. For that reason, if you host events or take payment for use of your property, you may want to consider liability insurance or at least get signed waivers from users. And just to be clear (we get this question a lot), if your land is considered open under MFL, the only approved public uses are hunting, hiking, fishing, sight-seeing and cross-country skiing. Any other use, including use of motorized vehicles, must be approved by the owner.
The last law doesn’t come up that frequently, but the interface of agricultural lands and recreational woodlands does make it relevant. The Fence Law applies to woodland owners with property bordering agricultural lands. If the neighboring property is used for grazing or crops, woodland owners may have responsibilities for building and maintaining fences. Payment for fencing is divided equally among the affected property owners. The law outlines fence materials, who is responsible for which portions of the fence, and what to do if both parties agree not to have a fence.
Protect yourself by regularly walking your property boundaries and keep an eye out for changes to any monuments you have erected and any use of your property by others. To learn more about boundaries and these three laws in more detail, watch our self-paced Learn About Your Land sessions and check out several publications at this page on our website .