‘No Trespassing’: a Sign of Frustration

Concord — September 15, 2009 — The “No Trespassing” sign has spawned more than a little poetic indignation, from the lesser known stanzas of Woody Guthrie’s immortal “This Land is Your Land,” to the Five Man Electrical Band’s rebel anthem, “Signs.” It’s a loaded statement that brings into sharp relief the inherent struggle between the instinct to roam and the instinct to protect one’s property. And it seems to carry particular weight here in New Hampshire, where the “Live Free or Die” mantra and the almighty property tax co-exist.

It’s no small matter, then, when new signs begin popping up on the local landscape, as happened recently in the Ossipee Mountains after property owners grew frustrated with unauthorized clearing on their land. Some 12,000 acres owned by Chocorua Forestlands have been closed to the public, and numerous other landowners have posted or are considering posting their land in the months since Bob Garrison of Henniker published a map of the area online and in hard copy. In addition to privacy issues, campfire rings and litter, they complain that someone created unauthorized trails, cutting whole trees and limbs and treating portions of the land with herbicide.

If, as people suspect, Garrison is responsible for the damage, he ought to pay restitution. But penalizing him and other offenders is only going to go so far in ensuring peaceful sharing of New Hampshire’s natural resources. As our population continues to grow and our more remote regions increasingly beckon tourists, the need for public discourse over land use is becoming urgent.

For starters, landowners ought to be well informed of their importance, as well as their rights and options. Current use law, which gives landowners a property tax incentive to keep their land free of development, is essential to our state’s rural complexion: More than half of New Hampshire’s land is in current use.

The state, which is struggling to maintain the land it already owns, relies on landowners who are willing to share their land with the public. For this reason, it offers a recreational discount, which reduces a parcel’s assessed value by an additional 20percent, for those who keep their land open to six low-impact uses: skiing, snowshoeing, fishing, hunting, hiking and nature observation.

Further, our state implicitly honors the freedom to roam: All land is open to the public unless the landowner posts it otherwise. Sadly, some property owners feel forced to post their land due to serious vandalism or other harmful activities. But they should be encouraged to use the inflammatory “no trespassing” sign only as a last resort.

There are numerous, less extreme alternatives for the landowner who finds himself at odds with the public. He can prohibit just four-wheelers for instance, or hunters, while allowing other recreational activities. He can simply post a sign asking people to get his permission before trespassing or even admonishing them to clean up after themselves. Sometimes, as any good parent knows, a positive spin is all that’s needed to induce good behavior.

Of course, not everyone agrees on what constitutes “good behavior.” Some of the biggest clashes in New Hampshire’s woods and wilderness occur between various types of recreationalists – hunters versus birdwatchers, snow-mobilers versus skiers, ATV riders versus hikers. Organizations such as the Fish and Game department should facilitate discussions between groups who have conflicting views on land stewardship and help promote solutions to their disagreements.

And, of course, land owners and outdoor enthusiasts of all varieties should constantly consider the larger impact of their actions. Sightings of the menacing “no trespassing” sign are otherwise sure to remain on the rise.

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