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Joint committee hearing puts North Dakota private land bill under microscope

Morton County Commissioner Cody Schulz, right, speaks to the House Energy and Natural Resources Committee on Senate Bill 2315, dealing with hunting access on private land. In back waiting to testify are, from left, Mary Graner, Julie Ellingson and Dorman Bazzell. Tom Stromme / Bismarck Tribune

BISMARCK — House lawmakers zeroed in on details of a bill on Thursday, March 14, that its sponsors say aims to improve landowners' and hunter's relations over private land access.

The House Agriculture Committee and House Energy and Natural Resources Committee held a joint hearing for testimony on Senate Bill 2315, introduced by Sen. Robert Erbele, R-Lehr. The Senate passed an amended version by a vote of 28-18.

The bill essentially presumes all private land is closed to access in North Dakota, with an exception for hunting. Landowners may opt in to a database to designate their land as closed or requiring permission for hunting; otherwise, their land is considered open to hunting unless they post signs.

The database would be built from North Dakota counties' geographic information system data, to be phased in to be fully operational by September 2022.

Erbele and co-sponsor Sen. Dale Patten, R-Watford City, emphasized their bill seeks to "connect the hunter with the landowner."

But House lawmakers, in their first look at the bill, questioned criminal trespass penalties, landowners changing the status of access to their land and the rollout of the bill's goals.

Rep. Todd Porter, R-Mandan, expressed his concerns over "loopholes" and "what ifs" related to the database, changing designations of access to private land and who may be charged for trespass in certain scenarios — such as a hunter who plans to hunt geese on private land, while, overnight, the landowner has posted the land.

Erbele and Patten said an advisory group provided by the bill would be tasked with working out kinks and questions related to hunting access and the land database.

The 2021 legislative session could also address further questions, Patten added.

"Understand that right away from the beginning, that this isn't an end-all kind of bill," Erbele told the committee. "It's something that's going to have to grow and it's going to have to mature and have some time to work because it is moving things in a different direction."

The bill was set to draw a similar stream of supporting and opposing testimony throughout the day Thursday as it did in its Senate committee hearing in January.

Several, previous legislative sessions have tried to address the issue of private land access. Erbele said the Dakota Access Pipeline protests of 2016 and 2017 in southern Morton County contributed to his introduction of the bill.

House Agriculture chair Rep. Dennis Johnson, R-Devils Lake, said the hearing will be reopen March 21 for additional testimony from people who could not attend the joint hearing in Bismarck due to inclement weather.

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