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SD seeks compromise for access to non-meandered ponds on private land

Kevin Robling is the special projects coordinator for the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks department. Matt Gade / Forum News Service

PIERRE — He's the state's non-meandered waters mediator.

Kevin Robling was put on special assignment by the South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks Department last year to implement House Bill 1001, aka the non-meandered waters legislation enacted following a special session in June last year.

His job puts him at the epicenter of what sometimes seems to be an insurmountable task — helping outdoor enthusiasts find common ground with South Dakota landowners to allow recreational opportunities such as fishing and hunting.

"It's bridging that gap on both sides," the 32-year-old said in a recent interview with Forum News Service. "It's a lot of agreements, landowner discussions, trying to keep waters open and opening waters that have been closed."

Although he holds a difficult position, Robling said progress is being made on several fronts to bring landowners and outdoor enthusiasts closer to compromise.

GF&P has staffers across the state working on the non-meandered issue, but Robling is coordinating the efforts. He earned his title as special projects coordinator for the state Game, Fish & Parks Department directly from GF&P Secretary Kelly Hepler shortly after last year's special session.

For about two decades, South Dakotans battled the public vs. private non-meandered waters issue that led to the new legislation and, eventually, the creation of Robling's main duty.

Hepler called Robling a "rising star" in the department and explained there is a specific reason he got the call for the non-meandered mediator work.

"Kevin has the unique ability to garner trust and is totally committed to improving landowner relations, which in the end will not only benefit anglers and hunters in northeast (South Dakota), but across this state," Hepler said. "I think you will see some positive results from Kevin's work after session."

But finding middle ground between outdoor enthusiasts and landowners takes time, Robling said. And much depends on what's decided by legislators during this session.

The law passed last year opened non-meandered waters to public use, unless posted by the landowner, with the caveat that, if it's mark closed, the water is open by permission.

The current law expires June 30 unless it is extended. Gov. Dennis Daugaard proposed a bill extending the expiration date to June 30, 2021. Meanwhile Rep. Larry Rhoden, R-Union Center, proposed a bill that removes the expiration date so the laws would run until the Legislature repeals them. Both bills are one roll-call from final passage. Daugaard supports Rhoden's bill.

The House and Senate have been debating the topic this week. While many South Dakotans wait in anticipation for a final resolution at the Capitol, Robling said progress is being made with landowners.

Fourteen organizations from around South Dakota — which includes associations in agriculture, tourism and others — support extending the bill in hopes Robling and other officials with the state can work out agreements with landowners to allow open property for recreational use. Robling said "very positive" work has been made.

According to GF&P, there are 244,285 acres of accessible non-meandered water in South Dakota. They're labeled "accessible" because they can be accessed via a public access point such as a road. But about 5,000 of those acres, or 2 percent, have been closed by landowners through a process that requires them to mark the water with signs and/or buoys.

Since taking his new job, Robling has spent hours speaking to landowners who've marked off their property and there's a common theme during each discussion.

"They want the person to call them and ask for permission, and the vast majority of the time they'll grant that. ... The other thing is they just want to be respected," Robling said. "They want people to pick up their garbage and respect them as far as not driving on their fields."

If legislators extend the bill, Robling and Hepler believe some of the 5,000 closed acres will be reopened, but no final agreements are in place at this time. Robling said he's in discussions with numerous landowners who are eyeing the work of the Legislature and waiting for action.

"There's tons of work to be done and there always will be," he said. "There's relationship building that needs to occur three, five and 10 years from now."

Robling grew up on a farm in southern Minnesota and was a center for South Dakota State University from 2004 to 2008, the first four years the football team played in Division I.

Robling has lived in Colman, Rapid City, Clark and now lives in Pierre with his wife and two children and has worked for GF&P since 2011.

He has other duties on top of the non-meandered waters issue, and said the best way for outdoor enthusiasts to help the situation is to show respect and appreciation to landowners.

"I hope people give GF&P time to do our jobs to the best of our abilities," he said. "We're going to continue to keep working hard each day to make sure recreational opportunities are provided in this state, while meeting the needs of the landowners. We have to balance those needs. Remember, recreation and respect, and all waters are open by permission."

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