Hunting and fishing are an integral part of the Vermont way of life. These activities help connect people to the land and the environment, provide a rite of passage for youth, and put food on the table.
Some would say hunting and fishing are as much a part of our culture and our traditions as skiing and maple syrup. In fact, the Vermont Constitution enshrines the right "to hunt and fowl" on private lands "not inclosed."
The problem is that in recent years more and more private landowners have been posting no-trespassing signs, denying sportsmen access to prime hunting and fishing grounds.
"One of the biggest complaints with our outdoors folks is access to land," Evan Hughes, a vice president of the Vermont Federation of Sportsmen's Clubs, told the Associated Press recently.
These landowners have every right to restrict who goes onto their private property. In most cases it's not because they don't like hunters or don't approve of the sport, but they're leery of strangers wandering around on their land with a loaded weapon. If they allow unrestricted access to their land they have no way of knowing who is there and how responsible they are.
Most hunters are conscientious stewards of the environment, respectful of other people's property and follow all of the hunting safety rules. But let's face it, there are some out there who leave litter in their wake and take little heed to nearby homes with children and pets playing about. Landowners need to protect themselves, their loved ones and their property from that irresponsible minority.
So how do we reconcile the interests of both the hunters and the landowners?
"They (hunters) don't want to be denied access that might be possible if alternative ways of keeping people that the landowners want off the land can be achieved," Hughes said.
The Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife is implementing a new rule that will expand options for landowners who want to restrict who can use their land to hunt, fish or trap. The department is holding a public hearing on the new rule tonight in Montpelier, and plans to have the rule in place for the fall hunting season.
Wildlife officials hope that by adding the option of "hunting by permission only" to the regulations governing the posting of land against hunting, fishing and trapping, more private land will be opened up to sportsmen, the AP reports.
"To me, it's fostering the old Vermont tradition of being neighborly," said Mark Scott, the department's director of wildlife. "Some landowners would like to send a message that my land's posted, but come and talk to me."
Hughes said his organization supports the change in the hopes of opening up more access to land for hunting and fishing.
"It's a real problem," he told the AP. "Unfortunately, it's something that can lead to our folks going elsewhere, outside Vermont, to pursue their activities because there's more access available."
Previously, landowners could only prohibit people from using their land. The law didn't provide an option for landowners to decide who could use it.
Anyone is free to put up no-trespassing signs or hunt-by-permission-only signs, but under the old system, violators would be treated as trespassers. Under the new regulations, when land is legally posted, offenders would be violating a law of the Department of Fish and Game, and punishment would be harsher. In some cases, violators can lose their hunting licenses.
Giving landowners another option so they can keep track of who is on their land and when, and instituting stricter punishment for violators, would help improve access for hunters and anglers and keep this Vermont tradition alive.