Strong opposition didn’t stop the Wisconsin Natural Resources Board from approving a snowmobile trail through Blue Mound State Park, but critics are stepping up their efforts in advance of a reconsideration of the policy later this month.
The controversial snowmobile trail was approved Jan. 27, 2016, by the board, which sets policy for the Department of Natural Resources based on the recommendations of DNR staff. But the DNR was sued in Dane County Circuit Court in November by Karl Heil, former superintendent of the park, and area resident and park user Kenneth Wade, for lobbying members of its governing body to approve the trail in violation of the state open meetings law.
Seeing this as a last-ditch opportunity to scuttle the motorized trail, Heil is now beating the bushes for lovers of cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and winter mountain biking at the park to send in written comments or agree to speak at the Jan. 25 board meeting.
“I’m sure they don’t want to change their votes,” Heil said of the seven members of the Natural Resources Board who voted unanimously for the snowmobile trail nearly a year ago. “If this time the public comments come back 50/50 for and against it, they won’t change their votes. So it’s up to us, the silent sports users of the park, to step up to bat.”
Nearly 200 people expressed in writing their concern for the noise, speed, exhaust and safety risks that could come with a 1.4-mile, $170,000 snowmobile trail linking the Military Ridge State Trail along the park’s southern border to private property north of the park. Only 12 snowmobilers asked for legal passage through the park. The trail will bisect and require rerouting of an existing ski trail.
After the Legislature and Gov. Scott Walker eliminated tax support for state parks in 2015, the DNR has looked for ways to make these properties self-supporting. Blue Mound remains one of the most popular parks, especially among silent sports enthusiasts. Participation in the Horribly Hilly Hundreds bike ride and Blue Mound Trail Run generated much of the $714,000 the Friends of Blue Mound put back into the park between 2008 and 2015. There’s fear within the Friends group that snowmobiles in the park will chase away silent sport visitors and their sizeable donations.
According to Heil’s lawsuit, DNR officials broke the open meetings law in the way they “lobbied and polled” board members to support the snowmobile trail before last year’s vote.
In addition to emailing and calling board members individually, the night before the meeting, DNR staff hosted a dinner for the board, at which the project was discussed. Because the briefing involved official business without public notice, the DNR violated state law, the attorneys for Heil and Wade argue.
Consequently, the plaintiffs have asked the court to declare void the board’s approval of the snowmobile trail.
In a response to the lawsuit, filed Dec. 23, state Attorney General Brad Schimel denied that the DNR broke the law. Regardless, Schimel said the complaint “is moot” because, at the urging of the DNR’s legal counsel, “the issue of the Blue Mound master plan [will] be placed before the board anew following a vote to reconsider the January 2016 approval.”
Heil, who retired as park superintendent for Blue Mound in 2011, scoffed at this. He compared the DNR to someone caught “doing 80 in a 55 mph zone, appearing in court and pleading not guilty by saying that the next time they drove down that road they obeyed the speed limit.”
In November, after the litigation uncovered email in which DNR officials discussed the intent of their pre-vote dinner, a DNR spokesperson said the agency will no longer host such events with board members.
The Capital Off Road Pathfinders mountain bike club supported the snowmobile trail last time around, in exchange for a change to the Blue Mound master plan to keep a choice mountain trail open. But in advance of the board’s reconsideration, the club has shared with its members, through its website and Facebook page, Heil’s plea to fight construction of the snowmobile trail.
The Madison Nordic Ski Club, which has about 250 members, also opposes the trail. Board member Renee Callaway says the club is updating a letter for submission to the DNR Board; it cites noise, pollution, impact on wildlife and the need to reroute part of an existing ski trail as reasons for the club’s opposition.
Heil says local residents can oppose construction of the DNR-backed snowmobile trail without opposing snowmobiling through the park. There’s already a signed trail within the right of way of Mounds Park Road that gets snowmobilers to and from the same points. Other possible routes exist east and west of the park.
The deadline to submit written comments to the Natural Resources Board is 11 a.m. on Jan. 13. The deadline to request to testify at the Jan. 25 board meeting is 11 a.m. on Jan. 20. Comments and requests to speak should be sent to board liaison Laurie J. Ross at Laurie.Ross@wisconsin.gov.
[Editor's note: This article was corrected to reflect the Madison Nordic Ski Club's opposition to the snowmobile trail.]