During one of our family gatherings over the holidays, my dad said something that caught my attention. We were busy snacking on all the food my mother and sister prepared, watching football and laughing at the kids when he mentioned one of the main reasons he watched sports was to root for the underdog.
It was a subtle moment, and the words were said more as a casual observance rather than a declaration. Still, it got me thinking.
The story of the underdog is, perhaps, one of the most pervasive themes throughout human history. It dates back to biblical times where David and his sling took down the mighty Goliath, and where a savior was born to us not on a throne, but in a lowly manger.
Fact is, we celebrate underdogs. Our history books are filled with them, and we make movies out of their glory. From dramatic war stories of overwhelming odds being overcome by a few to everyday people who had enough courage to stand up for what is right … and, in turn, win us over. Most of these stories were lived by others. Some are our own. Some have died. And some left legacies.
The new year is here, and it’s that time again where we all make resolutions, both big and small, as to how this year is going to be better than the last. And maybe at this dramatic point of “newness” is where that underdog nature we all feel swells the strongest.
For me, however, the new year is a scary proposition. It means the ability to change is staring right at me, and I’m not sure if I like that idea. You see, I’m pretty set in my ways, good or bad, and change can flat-out scare me, even if I know and understand it’s for the better.
But change is coming. Some of it we look forward to, and some things, such as age or maybe new healthcare laws, we don’t. It’s just the nature of things. However, as sportsmen, there are changes that we can effect that can have a significant impact on the future of hunting, fishing and all things outdoors. The question is, will we have enough courage to effect that change.
In the 2012 South Dakota State Legislature, a bill was brought forward seeking to change, or further govern, the delicate topic of water above private land. It’s not a new topic in our legislature by any means.
In 2005, HB 1059 was titled an act to authorize the water management board to establish the beneficial use of recreation on natural, nonmeandered lakes. In 2006, HB 1096 was brought forward to regulate access to and use of natural nonmeandered lakes and to provide certain penalties. These are just some of the more recent examples of an issue that has made its way to
Pierre for decades.
However, last year’s bill, HB 1135, was the most comprehensive and organized effort to date to restrict public access to water, a public resource, designated as such by state law.
Basically what was at stake was that, if passed, the ability of many anglers, hunters and other recreational water users to use and enjoy many lakes that they were currently using, and had been for years, would have been removed. The bill would have effectively limited public access to any nonmeandered bodies of water in the state. All of them. Not just a few here and there, but all of them.
Now, it’s very important to understand what meandered versus nonmeandered means, even though it’s somewhat of a moving target. In a nutshell, nonmeandered means that when the land was surveyed over some-100-odd-years ago there wasn’t enough water present to draw a meander line around it (that’s a very rough explanation). Nonmeandered waters sit above private land, and there is no public ownership of that land or lake bed. Meandered bodies of water, those that have a definitive meander line drawn around them, means that the bed of the lake is public domain and belongs to the state.
This presents a problem, because as we all know things change. Rising water levels, primarily in the northeastern part of the state, have swallowed up thousands of private acres. And, of course, the problem only gets more complicated not only through confusion but also because it has been abused by some of our fellow sportsmen. As the old saying goes, it only takes one bad apple to ruin the bunch, and there is no doubt that the nonmeandered issue has been exploited by more than one angler or hunter over the years. It simply is what it is.
Last year’s fight was over the finality of the bill’s verbiage. Everyone agrees that there are some waters that should be off-limits. However, HB 1135 started from a flawed premise and was drafted with no compromise in mind by those that wanted to see this water closed off to the public for good. At face value, it was seen as an attempt to privatize nonmeandered bodies of water, even if it was in 20 feet of water in the middle of Bitter Lake. Another example would have been Cattail-Kettle Lake in northeastern South Dakota could have been entirely closed off if the person or persons owning the land beneath it decided to do so.
Several amendments were proposed by both sides to clean up and further define some of the ambiguity of the bill. However, neither side was happy with the bill’s progress through committee. At the last minute, the bill was jointly tabled by proponents and oppo-
nents in an effort to bring all viewpoints to the table and come up with a comprehensive and fair bill that would suit both sides of the argument, which was no small task.
Before I go any further, I want to make something very clear. In my opinion, there are absolutely and unequivocally bodies of water that shouldn’t be accessed by the public. That might draw the ire of some folks, but the worst thing we can do is arch our backs and fail to listen to reason or act toward suitable compromise. An example is when a small slough floods just enough to touch a public right of way for a day or two. In this scenario, I don’t think it’s my right to dive in the first chance I get. That doesn’t make sense, and I sympathize with landowners who have encountered this issue.
However, if a nonmeandered body of water has been a viable fishery for 20 years and GFP has stocked it and opened boat ramps on it and whatever else, I don’t think legislation should sweep in and take that public resource away due to the vested interest of a small group of landowners.
Early reports indicate that several drafts of a bill for this year’s session have come and gone, and things are looking up from where they were at only a year ago. While no agreements have been made and a final draft of the bill isn’t available, it appears that eliminating all access to nonmeandered waters is off the table and, instead, an acre amount will be designated where if a body of water falls under a certain number of acres the landowner will then have the right to post the water. The number I’ve heard is 40 acres, but again, that could change. At face value, that seems fair.
Further, it’s sounding more and more that points of legal access such as section lines, roads, other types of public land and other right-of-way entries will still be available to the public. That’s another step in the right direction, in my book.
But, at this point, nothing is set in stone, so I would say that if you’re like me and you love the outdoors and all the opportunities they provide, please take note that this issue will be brought forward again in this year’s legislature. Do yourself and your kids a favor and pay attention. Proponent action to shut down public access has always been strong and extremely well funded, so it’s up to each and every one of us to have the courage to voice our opinions, respect the the thoughts of others and work toward a compromise that keeps the best interests of landowners and sportsmen equally in mind.
In doing so, we might just write a little underdog story of our own.