“So what’s next, water skiing at Devil’s Lake?”
That’s the question from former Blue Mound Park Superintendent Karl Heil following a decision by the Department of Natural Resources Board last week to move forward with plans for a high-speed snowmobile route through the scenic Iowa County park he once managed.
So far nobody has proposed changes at Devil’s Lake and one can only hope speed boats there aren’t next on the agenda.
But the question speaks to the issue of natural resources management, what the outdoor user base looks like going forward and whether state officials are trying to accommodate so-called “high-impact” uses at the expense of its most devoted customers.
For those who haven’t followed the Blue Mound saga closely, snowmobile advocates in southern Wisconsin have been pushing for more access and have sensed an opening under the Walker Administration. On the surface, it doesn’t seem like a big deal given there once was a snowmobile trail there 20 years ago and sleds currently zip past the park on the Military Ridge Trail when conditions permit.
The problem is that over the past two decades Blue Mound State Park, about 30 miles west of Madison, has become a “silent sports” haven, popular with cross-country skiers, snowshoers and mountain bikers.Much of the trail development has been done by volunteers, including the Friends of Blue Mound State Park, which has contributed over $700,000 in cash since 2008. That money helped build a wonderful four-season shelter with restrooms and public meeting space.
Arguments against a new trail were many: Snowmobilers can already use an existing trail along Mounds Park Road to access the Military Ridge State Trail. And with money being cut from state parks, it seems silly to spend an estimated $200,000 to mess up a popular ski trail that generates revenue in trail fees and parks stickers.
Yet at a time when the outdoor-loving public is being asked to pick up a larger share of the costs, the concerns of those who have poured their hearts and souls into Blue Mound were dismissed out of hand by state policy makers.
After three hours of public testimony, with almost every speaker in opposition, the Natural Resources Board still voted 6-1 in favor of a new snowmobile trail through the park.
“They listened to us for three hours—and then just ignored everything they’d heard,” said Jack Pohle, who has Iived in the Blue Mounds area for the past 35 years and worked as a Realtor there for the past 27 years.
It was actually the second time the Natural Resources' board had approved a new snowmobile trail through the park after an open meetings dispute raised questions about the first vote last year.
Heil and nearby property owner Ken Wade filed a complaint with the Dane County District Attorney in September alleging board members and DNR staff discussed the trail during a dinner the night before the vote—a potential violation of open meeting laws. Heil and Wade filed a second lawsuit alleging the decision to reroute the ski trail was an abuse of discretion and should be reversed.
Both lawsuits are still pending. But a DNR attorney last week said that by reconsidering its 2016 decision the agency was acting in good faith. And to the surprise of few who had followed the case, the board came in with the same decision it had the first time.
Defending his vote, Natural Resources Board member Greg Kazmierski of Pewaukee said the new snowmobile trail shouldn’t cause much of problem.
"Our role is to accommodate as many people as we can," he told the Associated Press. "It's not as big a deal as it's made out to be."
Truth of the matter is that high-impact outdoors uses—firearms, ATVs, snowmobiles and the industries that support them—have found friends in Gov. Scott Walker and the Republican Legislature who now dominate state government.
A case in point is the DNR Board decision last year over a management plan for the former Badger Army Ammo plant that went against the wishes of nature lovers who wanted the area restored to its pre-settlement condition. The plan now allows some limited dual-sport motorcycle riding, a model rocket launch site and leaves the door open for a shooting range.
The apparent shift in thinking about public lands stems in part from the 2012 “Hunting Heritage Act” which was included in Walker’s first budget.
That landmark law, which mandated hunting and trapping in all state parks, changed everything according to former DNR secretary George Meyer. In the past, high-impact uses were allowed only on a case-by-case basis.
“It basically flipped everything,” said Meyer, who now serves as executive director of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation.
At the same time, the state is facing a decline in hunting licenses sales revenues as the population ages and fewer young people are interested in taking up the sport. Efforts to attract more women and urban dwellers have met with limited success.
But rather than trying to fight demographic changes and push hunting, the state might be wiser to realize that aging Baby Boomers and younger millennials are more drawn to lower impact pursuits like hiking, biking, paddling and birdwatching.
“I think you need to set aside more places for the silent sports people,” says Meyer. “That’s the group that is growing.”
And it’s a group being ignored these days in Wisconsin.
Mike Ivey is a freelance writer based in Madison following a 30-year career at The Capital Times.