Considering the initial push for a rifle range, ATV trail and high-power rocket launch, nature lovers should be cheering the approved master plan for the former Badger Army Ammunition Plant.
The Wisconsin Natural Resources Board last week approved a long-range plan that calls for mainly quiet activities on the 3,400-acre Sauk Prairie Recreation Area south of Devil’s Lake State Park off of U.S. Highway 12.
That would include 20 miles of hiking trails, a 15-mile family oriented bike trail, 10 miles of challenging mountain bike trails and 12 miles of horse trails. Hunting and trapping would be allowed during the appropriate seasons.
The management plan also calls for a visitor center to recount the history of the Badger ammo plant along with the story of the Ho-Chunk people who lived on the fertile prairie for generations prior to European settlement.
Some hardline environmentalists are still upset the plan from the Department of Natural Resources will allow for small-scale model rocket launching on a 2-acre section up to 10 days a year. The plan also allows half of the area’s bike and horse trails to be used six days a year for off-road motorcycles, plus a 72-acre hunting dog training area.
For that reason, the Sauk Prairie Conservation Alliance has sued the DNR, alleging the department illegally included “high-impact” uses in the plan. That group has been advocating for keeping all the land in conservancy for quiet uses only, noting the dangers of motors in a place that once made heavy ordnance.
But considering the public land was once eyed for even more intensive uses, some see the changes as a step in the right direction.
“Let’s face; it could have been a lot worse,” says Laura Olah, who has been fighting for environmental causes at Badger for nearly 30 years.
As founder of the advocacy group Citizens for Safe Water Around Badger, Olah was one of the first to raise concerns about the contamination left from world’s largest producer of gunpowder during World War II.
“We have to remember those were the days when no one really thought about the pollution or damage to the groundwater,” she says.
In November 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt authorized $65 million to build the plant amid opposition from local farmers who were forced off their land. A tall fence was immediately built around 7,500 acres and the area was closed off to the public for decades.
During the war, the plant housed 8,000 production workers and their families. It included a school, recreation center, child care facility, hospital, cafeterias and 24 miles of railroad tracks.
While famous for making “smokeless” gunpowder, the Badger plant eventually shifted into other products like sulfuric acid and rocket propellant.
The Army has since removed some 1,400 buildings from the property and did what it could to address contaminated soils. A lot of the stuff was simply bulldozed, with the hope that prairie grasses would eventually cover the scars.
Once the cleanup work was completed, the usable land was divided into three sections: 3,400 acres went to the DNR; 2,100 acres to the Dairy Forage Center and 1,600 acres to the Ho-Chunk Nation, which is looking to restore the bison that roamed the area.
By comparison, Devil’s Lake State Park, which sits directly north of the Sauk Prairie Recreation Area, encompasses 9,200 acres.
The DNR has spent the past few years working on a management plan for its piece of the Badger property, weighing the various user group requests.
ATV riders and firearms groups had pushed the Walker Administration for access, sensing Republicans might be more open to those types of activities.
But the final plan approved last week did not include either ATVs or a shooting range. The Natural Resources Board also removed plans for a high-power rocket launch, like one currently operating at the Richard Bong State Recreation Area near Burlington.
Still, Olah remains concerned that any heavy use of the Badger lands that could stir up toxins from decades of chemical manufacturing and threaten native plants, birds and animals—not to mention nearby homes.
“The level of cleanup the Army did wasn’t designed for anything more intensive than families walking across the land,” she says, noting the lack of any camping sites in the management plan.
Nothing is going to happen right away. Costs to restore native habitat, remove existing buildings and structures, develop new trails, build a visitor center and other facilities are expected to approach $9 million. Given tight state budgets, you wonder if new trails will be a high priority.
“It will be many years before the proposed vision described in this master plan is achieved,” the DNR report cautions.
But given the long history of the Badger plant and the lengthy discussion over what to do next, what’s a few more years to make sure they get it right?
Mike Ivey is a freelance writer based in Madison following a 30-year career at The Capital Times.