Tunnel Trail Campground owner Scott Grenan points out the location of the proposed mine.
When Scott Grenon's in-laws opened the Tunnel Trail Campground near Wilton 44 years ago, they knew that being small business owners meant taking a risk. But it wasn't just a spur of the moment decision. West Bend residents, but frequent visitors to the new Elroy-Sparta Trail, they could see the potential in business coming from trail riders who wanted a nice spot to camp before and after their ride.
They did well enough to keep their small campground in operation -- they have 83 sites while today's commercial campgrounds tend to have several hundred -- long enough to pass it on to their daughter Julie and son-in-law Scott.
But today all that is threatened. Grenon and several other local residents who love the trail are up against one of Wisconsin's largest mining companies. Mathy Construction wants to locate a large gravel pit literally a pebble's throw from the trail and not much further from the campground.
On a breathtaking October day, I drove the two-and-a-half hours from Madison to Wilton to see what all the controversy was about. As executive director of the Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin, I thought it would be informative to get a first-hand look at the site.
For starters, Mathy's gravel pit would cover some 200 acres, much larger than traditional rural gravel pits that dot the landscape and often weigh in at around an acre or so. As local resident Eric Zingler likes to point out, "this isn't your grandfather's gravel pit."
In fact, there may be decades worth of mining ahead. Mathy estimates that it will take about 25 years to remove the gravel at the site and then, beneath it, is frac sand, valuable for fossil fuel extraction in North Dakota and Canada. Mathy estimates that the mine will be in operation for about 50 years.
To get the material out, Mathy will run some 100 trucks a day across the trail at Logan Road. And those trucks will come careening down a 13% grade toward the trail from the pit site. At the very least, this will be unpleasant for trail riders, if not dangerous, and it could spell the end for Scott Grenon's business.
"People come out here for the peace and quiet, not to camp next to an active open pit mine," Grenon told me. He said that "100%" of his business comes from campers who are there to ride the trail.
Grenon told me that Mathy has said no new jobs will be created by the pit, and the town assessor has said that no value will be added to the tax base. So, given all of the economic benefits of the trail, why would local officials allow the mine, especially considering that there are other possible locations to find gravel? Never mind that the trail is a fixed route.
Mathy sees an advantage in the site's proximity to State Highway 71, and that seems to be the gist of the reason they're pushing for it. On balance, it would seem to make sense for the Wilton town board to reject this proposal and ask that Mathy find another site with less harmful impacts to other businesses and the statewide and even national resource that is the Elroy-Sparta Trail, the country's first rails-to-trails project.
But on Tuesday night, the board approved the mine by a vote of 3-0. Residents opposed to the mine vowed to continue to fight it.
The vote came after two-and-a-half hours of sometimes heated testimony. A majority of those who spoke among the packed, standing room only crowd of about 70 opposed the mine.
Mathy Construction representatives were grilled by the crowd over a number of issues that included noise, truck traffic, potential ground water pollution and negative impacts on the bike trail and the tourism industry that it supports. The company announced at the meeting that it had added a high capacity well to its proposal for the purposes of washing aggregate.
I spoke on behalf of the Bike Fed, and pointed out that the trail sees about 60,000 visitors a year and has an estimated $1.2 million annual impact. I urged the board to reject this site, making the case that while gravel pits may be necessary, they are not necessary at every location. There are many potential sites in the township that would not impact the trail.
There was discussion about developing box culvert to run under Logan Road, which will connect the mine to Highway 71 across the trail, but the board made no attempt to require Mathy to install one. Its motion contained vague language about addressing some of the issues discussed at the meeting, but no specific conditions were imposed on the company to deal with any of the issues raised.
Glenn Stoddard, attorney for Tunnel Trail owner Scott Grenan, told the board that under Wisconsin ethics law, one of its members, Jan Brandau, could not vote or even participate in the meeting because it would be a conflict of interest. Brandau's son-in-law works for Mathy. Brandau responded by telling Stoddard that, "You haven't done your research. Actually I have three family members who work for Mathy."
Brandau then not only participated, but made a motion to approve the mine. It is possible that Brandau's participation in the meeting could nullify the vote if it is challenged in court.
Stoddard also said that the project as proposed violated the town's own mining ordinances, which he had actually written, because it did not protect the health, safety and welfare of the community's residents. Stoddard and his client are now considering legal action. In addition, approvals will be needed from Monroe County and from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. All three town board members are up for reelection in April.
The Elroy-Sparta Trail is not just a local resource, it's recognized regionally and even nationally as a jewel. Smudging it with this ill-considered mine is short-sighted.
Dave Cieslewicz is the executive director of the Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin.