GENOA, Wis. – Charles Burch was heading to his favorite ice fishing spot, a Mississippi River backwater south of Genoa, when he ran into a railroad detective.
The 74-year-old angler said the cop asked where he was headed.
“Obviously, I’m going fishing,” Burch said, retelling the story.
The railroad cop told him if he went across the tracks he’d get a trespassing ticket.
There was no other way to reach the water, so Burch turned around and hasn’t been back to that spot since. Never mind that he’d been fishing that slough for 40 years.
His experience is an increasingly common one, especially along Wisconsin’s western border, where more than 214 miles of BNSF track separates most of the state from the Mississippi River.
Citing safety concerns, BNSF is warning people not to cross its tracks, but the move could cut off access to thousands of acres of public land in Wisconsin.
Hunters and anglers say it’s an affront to a Wisconsin lifestyle. Railroad officials consider it a matter of life itself.
“The reality is there’s a lot of areas along the river that, if you can’t cross the tracks, you can’t get access to,” said Marc Schultz, chairman of the La Crosse County Conservation Alliance. “You’re impacting low- and moderate-income folks that don’t have all the wherewithal to get out there.”
BNSF spokeswoman Amy McBeth said the railroad isn’t trying to stop anyone from enjoying the outdoors.
“We’re not saying, don’t fish,” McBeth said. “We’re saying, access that [area] in a safe way.”
While the railroad recently hired an officer to patrol Wisconsin, McBeth stressed that the campaign so far has been educational.
“We are not nor have we been citing people. We’re trying to make them aware,” she said. “At this point, it’s all an education campaign.”
Rick Hauser is a railroad conductor who works along the Mississippi River corridor and the local legislative representative for SMART-TD Local 311, the union that represents BNSF conductors.
“I honestly can’t tell you the number of times we’ve had to whistle at someone walking down the middle of the track with a fishing pole,” he said. “I’ve seen them crossing, and I’ve also seen them walking right down the middle of the track.”
Hauser said he’s even seen people climbing through or under parked trains. “It’s just unbelievable,” he said.
Susie Klinger is general manager and also an engineer with Tomahawk Rail in northern Wisconsin and sees potentials for danger that others may not see. She says modern trains are quieter — thanks to smoother rails — and come far more frequently. They overhang the rails by 3 feet, and it’s not uncommon for cargo to shift and stick out even further.
Trains can’t swerve, and Klinger points out that a fully loaded freight can take up to a mile to stop. By the time an engineer sees someone on the tracks, she said, “It’s too late.”
McBeth said people should use designated public crossings — such as highways, roads or sidewalks.
“It’s a significant safety issue for people to be crossing railroad tracks at any place other than a railroad crossing,” she said. “We take that seriously.”
Outdoors advocates, however, argue the railroad is going overboard with enforcement.
“For years it worked, and why did they have to change it?” Schultz said. “It’s as simple as that.”