This commentary is by Michael Shank, a resident of Montpelier.
Here’s the only time I’ll ever utter the following phrase: Vermont should be more like Alabama and Arkansas, Tennessee and Texas, and Missouri and Montana. All these states, and nearly a dozen more, have a law in place that I wish that Vermont would institute.
They all have what’s called a “purple paint law”. And that purple paint, marked around the border of one’s property, lets people know that they are on private property and signals that hunting, fishing, and trapping of animals is prohibited.
But not here in Vermont. Here, our operating premise is that everyone’s personal property is, well, everyone’s public property – particularly if you’re a hunter or angler – to do what you want with unless told or signaled otherwise.
When I first moved to Vermont and bought a 76-acre farm, I couldn’t believe that the onus was on me, every single year, to physically post and label signs on the perimeter, record it with the town clerk, and pay a fee — simply because I didn’t want anyone to come onto my land with a weapon and kill wild animals on my property.
Now, to be clear, I’m happy to have neighbors hiking, walking, sledding, skiing, and birdwatching on my land and many have asked to do so over the years. This is a Vermont tradition and one that shouldn’t be impacted by a purple paint law.
But the labor-intensive task of annually posting my farm, forests, fields, and wetlands, to prohibit hunting and fishing on it, shouldn’t be on me. I should be able to state how I want my land to be used once — and only once — and it should last the entire life of my stewardship of that property. The same goes with registering once with the town clerk. That one-off approach, which nearly 20 U.S. states have taken with the purple paint law, or variations of it, makes sense.
What doesn’t make sense is an approach that is so easily dismantled and destroyed. Vermont’s flimsy “posted” approach — in which light plastic paper that says “no trespassing” is stapled to trees bordering the property — leads to vandalism and the easy removal by trespassers. It’s happened to me and other neighbors; it’s a common practice. They’re not weatherproof and tear-proof like the manufacturer claims, and they get torn up all the time. And if someone tears down just one sign, your land is no longer considered posted and, thus, protected.
What doesn’t make sense is an approach that is ableist in nature. That requires folks throughout rural Vermont, many of whom are older in age, to canvass their property every single year to ensure it is newly posted, which, as has already been articulated by others before me, is a dangerous and precarious requirement by the state. This is putting older Vermonters directly in harm’s way.
What doesn’t make sense is the assumption that your land is, by default, hunters’ land, with a hunter’s right to access, which has been Vermont’s default. That shouldn’t be the default, which is why the conservative states mentioned above rightly put the default in the hands of the property owner who purchased the land, not some potential trespassing hunter or angler.
What this illogical policy leads to is a lot of ill-will, which we’re seeing across Vermont as conflicts increase over posted land use. And I get it. This feeling I’ve had, ever since owning property in Vermont, that the property isn’t really mine as the default, and that there could easily be armed people on it, entering in spots in the border perimeter where signs were removed, is very unsettling.
As a result, I never really feel safe on my own property, the safety of which the Vermont Constitution’s Article 1 claims to protect. Frankly, I’m tired of having to wear orange when hiking my forest so that I don’t get accidentally shot while stewarding the land for the next generation. That’s not freedom.
It’s long past time that Vermont joined other states, respected the property owner and their safety as the default on this issue, and instated a purple paint law to replace the flimsy, plastic, posted system that’s so easily dismantled and destroyed.
People want to be safe on their own property, something to which the Vermont Constitution is committed. They don’t want to constantly post plastic paper signs saying that they don’t want unwanted weapons or wildlife killed on their property. That should be a one-and-done deal. And to those who prefer the paper signs, have at it. The purple paint option is simply an alternative; this law would not impact ethical hunters who already ask permission.
It’s long past time to update this outdated policy and much of rural America has already done so. It’s your turn, Vermont.
Michael Shank, Ph.D.