The Natural Resources Board has approved a master plan allowing for dual-sport motorcycle riding, model rocket launching, year-round training of hunting dogs, periodic National Guard helicopter flights and, potentially, a shooting range. Critics say these approvals undo 20 years of local planning for prairie conservation and quiet recreation on the site of the former Badger Army Ammunition Plant near Baraboo. But with a lawsuit pending, the matter may not be settled.
The unanimous decision Dec. 14 by the board to approve the plan presented by the Department of Natural Resources followed testimony by some 30 people for and against the controversial “high-impact” activities proposed for the 3,385-acre site. The remainder of the 7,300-acre property has been divided up between the Ho-Chunk Nation, USDA Dairy Forage Research Center, and Bluffview Sanitary District.
A lawyer representing the Sauk Prairie Conservation Alliance suggested that by approving the master plan as is, the state risked the land being taken back by the feds. Attorney Jeff Bowen noted that his Madison law firm, Perkins Coie, filed a lawsuit against the DNR a week earlier arguing that inclusion of the high-impact uses violates the agency’s agreement with the National Park Service through which the land was obtained.
“We don’t comment on pending litigation. However, we find the lawsuit wholly without merit,” DNR legal counsel Quinn Williams told the board before the vote. “Nothing in the lawsuit should affect your decision today.”
After the NRB unanimously approved the master plan, Bowen said, “We are weighing our specific options, but we will be continuing our lawsuit. In our view, the board's action did not comply with its legal obligations.”
The lawsuit contends that the state acquired the land by agreeing to only allow low-impact recreation (such as bird watching, biking, hiking and horseback riding, as is also included in the final master plan), not high-impact uses. However, the approved master plan allows for as many as 100 dual-sport motorcycles on half of 37 miles of the planned biking and equestrian trails six days a year and the launching of model rockets on a two-acre site 10 days annually.
A National Park Service official in May did express concern that the DNR’s intended allowance for motorcycles and rocketry was not included in the state’s original application to acquire the former Badger Ammo land. Elyse LaForest, program manager for the NPS’ Federal Lands to Parks Program, indicated that the DNR can change its usage plans but requested the state agency make clear how it will “minimize both potential user and resource conflicts.”
Those concerns were met in the updated draft master plan released in August, said Diane Bruscoe, property planning section chief for the DNR. In fact, LaForest sent a letter on Dec. 8 thanking the DNR staff for doing a “comprehensive revision” of the master plan that “provided us with the information we needed.”
DNR attorney Williams pointed to that letter as evidence the lawsuit is without merit because “the NPS agrees with everything we’ve done.”
“I don’t believe for a second the National Park Service will take back the land because we’ve allowed six days of motorcycling and 10 days of rocketry,” NRB member Julie Anderson said. She said that these limited activities won’t “ruin the flora and fauna and the other uses on that property, if it's set up correctly.”
Board member Frederick Prehn said the parcel is big enough to accommodate all the proposed uses. “But going forward I hope the department doesn’t try to mix high- and low-impact uses on everything, because we’re going to run into problems,” he said.
Board members pointed out that it could take another decade or more to secure the millions of dollars needed to implement the DNR’s plan for the Sauk Prairie State Recreation Area, which includes constructing the trails, a visitors’ center and other facilities.
Several of the speakers pointed out that the master plan was not in keeping with the 2001 plan agreed upon by the Badger Reuse Committee, a group of 21 local stakeholders that included DNR representatives. The committee concluded only low-impact recreational uses should be allowed.
“Not once did we hear from motorcycling or rocketry groups,” Bill Wenzel, a 20-year Sauk County Board supervisor, told the NRB.
Wenzel was one of 14 of the 21 original Badger Reuse Committee members who signed a letter submitted to the NRB earlier this month saying that “in proposing high-impact, incompatible, and detrimental recreational activities, the WDNR has broken its promises and undermined the community trust and relationships that we have built together over the last 20 years, through four state administrations.”
DNR officials said at the NRB meeting that the reuse committee plan was “a nonbinding, advisory document” and master planning “evolves over time.”
The board was clearly charmed by the several Madison West High School Rocketry Club members who testified that building and launching model rockets has inspired them to pursue careers in science and technology. They asked to be allowed a launch site at the Sauk Prairie recreation area as a more convenient alternative to Richard Bong State Recreation Area near Kenosha, the only other state property that allows rocketry.
The club members said their rockets generate only 70 decibels – no noisier than a loud conversation or a flushing toilet, and less than half as loud as a shotgun (the recreation area will be open to hunting) – and only for a few seconds each. They retrieve all components of their rockets, so no litter results from their events. The board did vote to eliminate from the plan one day a year of shooting off high-powered rockets, which the student club doesn’t do.
Representatives of dog trial groups said an area designated for them is too hilly and wooded and would be too costly to clear of trees and brush. They asked for other locations but the board didn’t act on that request.
Also preserved in the plan is construction of 10 miles of singletrack for mountain biking. Peter Schmitz, owner of the Baraboo bike shop Wildside Action Sports, said an earlier draft of the master plan included a provision for just five miles of singletrack if another five more miles of connected singletrack was approved in a future master plan update for the adjacent Devil’s Lake State Park.
As a separate matter, the NRB voted to officially designate the Great Sauk State Trail, which will eventually connect the state park and Prairie du Sac/Sauk City by utilizing a railroad corridor through the former Badger Ammo property. “It’s an exciting day for cycling,” Schmitz said.
And if dual-sport motorcycling riding does damage to the bike trails in the recreation area, he’s confident the repairs will be made by the motorcycle clubs. “I’m all about sharing the trails,” Schmitz said.
Editor’s note: Joel Patenaude serves on the Wisconsin Nonmotorized Recreation and Transportation Trails Council. He opined against allowing dual-sport motorcycling at the Sauk Prairie rec area for Isthmus.