Trespassing Troublemakers

August 30, 2009 07:00 PM
Damage caused by four-wheel-drive pickups has forced Dave and Jo Hendrickson to till and reseed their Conservation Reserve Program land on several occasions.

The view from Dave and Jo Hendrickson's farmhouse near Rochester, Ill., is pleasant, but they hate to look out the window after 10 p.m. That's when off-road pickups tear through their property.

Usually, the vandals escape, leaving rutted fields behind. But on five occasions, the Hendricksons have caught a driver in the act because his vehicle got stuck in their field. However, prosecuting the vandals has been more difficult than catching them.

Pickup drivers access the Hendricksons' fields from a dirt-surfaced township road. Bumper stickers on some of the pickups suggest the drivers are off-road enthusiasts, who think plowing through muddy fields is fun. "We've had drivers leave hard-surfaced roads and drive into our fields,” Dave says.

Drivers probably think grassy Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) land is wasteland and don't realize how much damage they are doing, Dave says. "But every time they tear up a CRP field, I have to smooth out the ruts, till and replant—at my own expense, because USDA does not cost-share reseeding.”

"We've had quarter-mile strips cut through standing corn. Drivers seem to enjoy plowing through corn that's 10' or 12' tall. They do it at night, so if you don't see them enter a field, you'll never notice them,” Dave says.

So far, none of the drivers the Hendricksons have caught have been prosecuted by local authorities. They are continuing to work with the Sangamon County, Ill., state's attorney on the most recent case.

Trespassing trend. Unfortunately, vehicular trespassing is "fairly prevalent,” says Kevin Rund, who works on local government issues for the Illinois Farm Bureau. It involves pickups and all-terrain vehicles (ATVs).

Prosecution for damage caused by trespassers tends to be difficult, Rund adds. Usually, damage isn't noticed until the perpetrators are gone. In Illinois, criminal damage to property of more than $300 can qualify as a felony. The intent of that law may have been to make trespassing more costly for violators. In reality, it may cause law enforcement authorities to hesitate before saddling a youthful violator with a criminal record.

If you can identify the perpetrator, you can sue for damages in small-claims court. "If damages are awarded, it's up to the plaintiff to collect them. We haven't found small-claims court to be worth the trouble,” Jo Hendrickson says.

The first step in discouraging vandals is to post "no trespassing” signs, says Champaign County, Ill., state's attorney Julia Rietz.

If you spot trespassers on your land, gather as much information as you can, such as license number and physical descriptions of the vehicle and driver. Take photos from a safe distance. And then call the police, rather than confronting a trespasser, Rietz urges. BT

To contact Darrell Smith, e-mail

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