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Most rural landowners are quick to list timber-sale profits and tasty wild game meals among the rewards of working and playing on their property.

But the relatively unpleasant and confusing issues of liability, trespass and timber theft, often as blurred as the disappearing barbed wire fence lines of Western New York's abandoned farmland, generally are avoided until problems arise.

The more than 400 people who attended Cornell Cooperative Extension's daylong ninth annual Rural Landowner Workshop on Saturday in Pioneer Central School will return to their countryside homes armed with information and some simple protective measures.

"If you have a high-value timber stand, it's very attractive," said Dennis Wilson, a forester with the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

Chances of timber theft, he said, are high when the owner is absent, a survey is not available and boundary lines are not clearly marked.

He described ways to find and mark the edges of the property and advised owners to know their neighbors, make frequent visits and put up many signs.

"Assertiveness pays," Wilson said.

"It's better you go out and say to your neighbor, 'Here's my line,' than he comes out and says, 'Here's my line.' "

The tradition of walking over others' property is being replaced by the need to ask for permission, he said.

Dave Colligan, a landowner and Buffalo attorney with the firm Watson, Bennett, Colligan, Johnson & Schechter, surprised a group of more than 75 landowners with a long list of court rulings that found property owners free of liability after others were injured on their land.

Colligan said owners may be found liable for injuries or damages if they charge hunters or others for using their land, or if they willfully or maliciously fail to prevent a hazardous condition. He advised them to take preventive measures with signs warning of dangers.

Under what he called the "recreational vehicle law," owners have no duty to keep their premises safe for most activities and have been found free of negligence when uninvited or invited guests were injured in falls, all-terrain vehicle crashes and other activities found unsuitable by the courts.

Liability is not increased by taking out insurance, granting permission to enter or use the land, posting the premises or erecting a fence, Colligan said.

"If anybody sitting here thinks your land doesn't belong to you, then you're in the wrong seminar," he said, reviewing the rules for posting property boundaries. He told the group that convicted trespassers can be forced to pay nominal damages even if they haven't harmed the property. Environmental conservation law requires signs to be at least 11 inches wide and 11 inches high, contain a conspicuous statement at least 80 inches square, and use the general term "posted" or specifically refuse entry for specific activities.

The signs must be placed no more than 660 feet apart along the property boundaries, with at least one sign on each side and facing out in both directions at the corners. Also, the signs must be maintained yearly and show the owner's name and address.

"Your land is your land, and it's called due process," he said.

A host of topics, such as timber taxes, estate planning, wildlife management and forest products, were covered throughout the day with the help of regulatory agencies and industries geared toward forest management. Some of the proceeds help pay for the New York Forest Owners Association College Scholarship Fund.

David Swaciak, the Cornell Cooperative Extension agent who organized the event, said that before applications were cut off, about 50 more registrants were accepted this year than last year. He promised to make room for more than 500 next year.

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