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It’s no secret silent sports types in Wisconsin have been taking it on the chin.
And now the Department of Natural Resources is proposing to add more than 200 miles of trails for ATVs and other motorized off-road vehicles in the Northern Highland–American Legion State Forest in northern Wisconsin. That forest is home to some of the best wilderness camping and paddling in the state.
The Natural Resources Board, which sets DNR policy, is expected to decide the NH-AL's motorized fate when it meets Wednesday. The DNR plan for the state forest represents the latest effort to bring more intense uses to state parks and natural areas. This comes even as planners admit that promoting motorized vehicles could drive away those who visit for the peace and quiet.
Two recent court rulings against the DNR make the point that existing laws must be followed despite the politics of the day. And as it happens, both decisions came from a marathon-running judge who likes to watch birds while she gets her training in.
In one case, Dane County Circuit Court Judge Valerie Bailey-Rihn overturned a decision by the state Natural Resources Board to allow a snowmobile trail through Blue Mound State Park—which tends to be the snowiest place for cross-country skiing in southern Wisconsin.
The judge determined earlier this month that the DNR didn’t follow its own rules when planning to locate a snowmobile trail across the most scenic section of a popular Nordic ski trail. Snowmobiles have been banned from the park since the 1980s, with Blue Mound evolving into a quiet park for hiking, mountain biking and birdwatching.
Bailey-Rihn didn’t rule whether snowmobiles should be allowed or not but noted the DNR ignored the agency’s own classification system to determine compatible uses in a park.
“When agencies abandon their own procedures and argue that they do not apply to their actions, they act outside their discretion,” Bailey-Rihn wrote in her decision in a lawsuit filed last November on behalf of former park superintendent Karl Heil and village of Blue Mounds resident Ken Wade.
It’s the second time the court has questioned the move to add a snowmobile trail at Blue Mound State Park. An earlier ruling found the DNR board had violated open meetings law by discussing at a private dinner how to deal with opposition to the proposed trail. More than 200 people had submitted public comments against the snowmobile trail with only 12 in favor, according to court filings.
The DNR is still weighing its options at Blue Mound but one would suspect it will take another stab at the issue—even after the recent departure of DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp, a snowmobile enthusiast, for a job with the Trump Administration.
“This matter will likely come before the board again in a public meeting sometime in the unspecified future,” said DNR spokesman Jim Dick in an email. “We are reviewing the options for what that proposal will look like.”The Natural Resources Board will meet in closed session at its upcoming meeting Wednesday to discuss the lawsuit and the next steps.
Also on the DNR Board agenda Wednesday is a proposal to accept $85,000 from the Friends of Blue Mound Park for new handicapped accessible playground equipment. Most of that money was raised from participants in the Horrible Hilly Hundreds bike ride and a trail run held at the park.
Heil couldn’t help but note the irony of the DNR accepting a large donation from the same user group which has opposed the snowmobile trail.
“The friends group has been pouring tons of money into the park,” says Heil, adding he is not surprised the DNR would press on with a snowmobile trail over the wishes of its most devoted fans.
While the Blue Mound case has generated a lot of attention in the Madison area, a separate case that came before Judge Bailey-Rihn carries sweeping ramifications for state water policy. It could also impact those who enjoy paddling or fishing on Wisconsin’s wonderful lakes and streams.
In that case, Bailey-Rihn threw out permits for eight high-capacity wells in central Wisconsin that DNR scientists had warned would suck water from adjacent lakes and streams. The lawsuit was filed by the environmental group Clean Wisconsin.
The ruling from Bailey-Rihn was based on the Wisconsin’s “Public Trust Doctrine” a constitutional provision that says the state’s navigable waters and lakebeds must remain “forever free” for all to enjoy.
“This Court is bound by nearly 120 years of precedent and a long rich history in the state of respecting the Wisconsin Constitution and its fundamental protection of the waters of the state,” she wrote.
The well permit issue has been a hot one at the Capitol. Eight influential business groups joined the Department of Justice in defending the DNR in the lawsuit. Given the amount of money at stake, one would expect an appeal of this ruling, too.
That Judge Bailey-Rihn understands the importance of environmental protection isn’t surprising given her resume. She ran the Boston Marathon in 2009 and also enjoys scuba diving and bird watching. The judge even keeps a spotting scope in her eighth-floor office overlooking Lake Monona.
“There’s nothing better than pointing out great horned owls to people and barred owls and their chicks,” she told the Wisconsin State Journal in 2016. “I guess it’s the same reason I like to run. You go outside, you never know what you’re going to see.”
All rise for that.
Mike Ivey writes the Footloose blog for madisonmagazine.com.