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Fight brews over fishing on flooded land

Traffic moves through the construction area along U.S. Highway 12 west of Waubay at the west end of Rush Lake in this aerial photo taken in 1998. Because of heavy snows and rains in the past decade, many sloughs have turned into lakes and many lakes have grown immensely, especially in the Glacial Lakes region, leading to a debate over fishing rights on flooded lands. (AP Photo)

By Bob Mercer

Capitol Correspondent

PIERRE — Neither side is ready to give yet on how much public access should be allowed on waters atop flooded private lands in South Dakota, members of the state Game, Fish and Parks Commission were told Friday.

0 Talk about it

The conflict “will be one of the biggest issues” in the 2014 session of the Legislature that opens in January, GF&P Secretary Jeff Vonk predicted.

The South Dakota Supreme Court decided the matter is up to the Legislature to decide. The state House of Representatives approved a landowner-oriented measure in the 2013 session but the legislation was pulled in the Senate.

“It’s not a northeast South Dakota problem. It’s a South Dakota problem,” said commissioner Jim Spies, of Watertown. “The whole state is what we’re talking about. This is a big deal. This is a huge issue.”

The general policy is water is open to public use in South Dakota if public land touches it, such as a public boat ramp or road right of way.

“It’s hard to find a win-win,” said commissioner Barry Jensen, of White River.

Because of heavy snows and rains in the past decade, many sloughs have turned into lakes and many lakes have grown immensely, especially in the Glacial Lakes region.

The waters have expanded over private land whose owners pay property taxes but can’t use the land and often can’t control how the water is used above it. The waters now often reach township and county roads that can provide legal access.

The GF&P in recent decades stocked many of the lakes to improve fishing. Now those waters are much bigger and are attracting anglers from South Dakota and neighboring states when conditions are good.

“Tradition is that if you can get legal access to it, you can use it,” Vonk said. “There’s a lot of flooded private land out there. That riles some folks up and that’s where the conflict occurs.”

Neither a landowners group nor the South Dakota Wildlife Federation has shown willingness to accept a compromise that Vonk has offered.

He suggested letting property owners control waters smaller than 25 acres above private land and establishing an appeals process that would allow closing waters for safety, privacy or economic reasons.

“We don’t know what the right number is. Maybe it’s five, maybe it’s 50, we don’t know,” he said. “What we have I doubt is going to be the final solution.”

The Wildlife Federation is preparing. The organization received approval from the commission Thursday to purchase for $100 the GF&P mailing list of resident fishing-license holders.

Vonk said GF&P officials will meet with the Ag United coalition of farm and ranch groups later this month. He said some legislators interested in the issue plan a meeting in early December.

“It’s an issue, to be honest, where I don’t see easy compromise. People are pretty dug in,” Vonk said. “I don’t think we’re close to a remedy yet. I will tell you the legislators I’ve talked to are committed and want to get something done.”