Wisconsin defines nearly all bodies of water in the state as public domain. That means they belong to everyone…and to no one. When conflicts arise among lake users, who is right and who is wrong?
This issue is very familiar to area Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources conservation warden Jim Jung. He’s seen his share of problems and knows that often there are no simple answers. “Sometimes there is no solution,” he says with a shrug. “We work within a set of laws and policies that don’t always lead to a clear resolution.”
Autumn brings a host of problems. “The early goose season will bring hunters close to shorelines where geese have been living and feeding all summer,” he explains.
“When those guns start going off at 6:30 a.m., property owners will be alarmed. But as long as hunters aren’t discharging firearms in a reckless manner, and are shooting in a safe direction, they are within their legal rights.”
Hunting, fishing and boating regulations aren’t always familiar to property owners. “We had one instance where a property owner had put in brush piles around his pier so his grandchildren could catch fish,” Jung recalls.
“When he came out of his house one day to find a boat anchored in front of his pier with three people casting toward it, he was angry. The property owner believed that area of the lake in front of his dock was his.
“We had to explain to him that the fishermen were well within their rights and he was wrong to throw rocks at them. Wisconsin DNR does have a law that prohibits a person from interfering with the lawful acts of fishing and hunting.”
Many conflicts aren’t that clear-cut for the DNR. Also, as Jung points out, he and other staff do not have full police powers. Sometimes, their only solution is to act as mediators.
“A few years ago, we had a property owner who had set up a duck blind on his shoreline. We got a complaint from a trapper who was using the same shoreline (in the water) when the duck hunter stole his traps.
“The hunter said he was worried his dog would be caught in a trap when it entered the water to retrieve a duck,” Jung continues. “That is a legitimate concern, but the trapper had a right to set his traps in the water.
“I asked the hunter, what if it was a musky fisherman using the water in front of your blind? He said, ‘I’d deal with that.’ He’d dealt with that before.” For this man, there was a history of anglers sharing the water, but the trapping was new.
This particular conflict could have been resolved through better communication prior to acting on an impulse, according to Jung. “In the end, the waterfowl hunter was issued a DNR citation for interfering with a lawful act of trapping,” he says.
“Communication is the key,” he continues. “They needed to talk it out and find a way to pursue their activity while acknowledging the rights and wishes of the other person.”
For many property owners, according to Jung, it’s hard to grasp the idea that their rights end where the water begins. “Often, by the time we’re called in to a situation, the conflict has been going on for a long time,” he says. “I can’t easily fix a problem that’s been brewing for years.”
One of the ways to avoid this is with education. “Knowledge is power,” says Jung, and urges anyone with questions to contact the DNR. The local DNR office, at 107 Sutliff Avenue in Rhinelander, is open from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. The website address is dnr.wi.gov. In addition, the DNR has set up a call center which is available from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. That number is (888) WDNR-INFo (936-7463) and staff will be able to assist with all general DNR questions.
There are more than 400 named lakes in Oneida County under the jurisdiction of Jung and three other wardens. With more and more people using those lakes in various ways, conflicts are on the rise. “For example, you have retirees who are looking for a quiet life on the water,” says Jung. “Then you have visitors who come up with their speed boats and want to have some excitement.”
When jet skis (what the DNR calls personal watercraft or PWC) became popular in the 1980s, many people wanted to ban them. “We were drawn into that issue,” Jung recalls, “and pointed out that, with a town ordinance, you could regulate an activity, but not regulate a specific style or type of boat.
“We worked with towns to help them put rules in place, for instance: no-wake zones in areas where residents had a safety concern or limits on power boating prior to ten in the morning.
“For regulations like that, people need to work with their town boards to create an ordinance, and they will need to post notices at boat landings as well as buoys on the water. Some smaller lakes have had to put other rules into effect, such as having boats move clockwise or counter-clockwise for safer operation.”
Actually, Jung points out, there are some special regulations for the use of PWCs. While all boats are subject to the no-wake rules when operating 100 feet or closer to a shoreline, pier, other boat, or person in the water, PWCs must operate without a wake when within 200 feet from a shoreline and 100 feet from all other boats/PWCs and the remaining objects.
“This is strictly for safety reasons,” says Jung. “These PWCs have a water intake and impellor which shoots water out the back. There is no rudder, just a nozzle, so there is no off-throttle steerage.”
In addition to steering limitations, these small crafts can reach speeds of 60 miles per hour and require a longer distance to avoid collisions. “The speed and distance rules also prevent operators from goofing around out on the water, crossing each others’ wakes, as this puts them too close to another boat or PWC,” Jung points out. “They can be very dangerous machines. We’ve seen way too many broken wrists and legs.”
Jung spends many hours during the summer patrolling area lakes. He says that for every citation he writes, he issues at least 15 warnings. Ironically, he says most boat operators that he stops are not the young and the reckless.
“Anyone born after 1989 is required to take our boating safety course, and that’s a big help. Where we find problems is with older operators. For instance, even pontoon boat operators may be traveling greater than slow-no-wake speed within 100 feet of swim rafts or docks.
“They may not have enough life jackets on board, or they allow passengers outside the safety railings, sometimes dangling their feet between the pontoons. That’s incredibly dangerous.”
Complaints against boat operators are often for going too fast too close to others. The idea of slow-no-wake operation is not always an easy one to understand, but when a large wake puts someone swimming or paddling a canoe or kayak in danger, emotions can run high.
“We get a lot of calls on the DNR tip line for this,” says Jung. “It’s important that you get as much information as possible to help us answer a complaint. Try to remember the boat registration number and a description of the boat and the operator.”
Jung recommends carrying a notebook to write down information. A cell phone is also a good idea for calling the DNR hotline at (800) TIP-WDNR (847-9367). “We can’t always get there right away,” he explains, “and the person answering the tip line is in Madison so the caller needs to be detailed.
“If there is an ongoing situation, like a problem boater in a certain place at a given time, we can watch out for them. In that case, it’s good if you can leave your name and phone number with the tip line operator. Otherwise, the call is anonymous.”
Even if they give their name, callers can request to remain confidential and are protected from open records requests by others.
Area lake associations have been helpful in dealing with lake use conflict, says Jung. “Some have printed maps of their waterway that include shaded areas to show no-wake zones around shorelines and islands. This is really helpful, and when posted at boat landings and on their website, it gives everyone a clear idea of what they can do and what they can’t.”
Sue Schneider is a freelance writer who lives in Rhinelander. Her articles have also appeared in Northwoods ‘boomers and Beyond and Northwoods Commerce magazines.