Wisconsin Department of Tourism
Dual sport motorcyclists, like those riding here on the Northern Wisconsin Adventure Trail, want access to the Sauk Prairie State Recreation Area.
Just south of Devil’s Lake State Park and the Baraboo Hills, the former Badger Army Ammunition Plant enters a new era. Once the world’s largest production facility for ammunition propellants, fueling World War II, the Korean and Vietnam wars, “Badger” workers burned excess toxic chemicals in open pits, leaving the residue to leach into thousands of acres of soil and groundwater and contaminate private wells beyond its borders. The U.S. Army replaced a handful of those wells and, in 2001 and 2006, dredged tens of thousands of pounds of mercury, lead and other metals from the sediment in one Lake Wisconsin bay, where tens of millions of gallons of Badger wastewater was pumped between 1942 and 1976.
The Army ceased operation of the plant in the late 1970s, but concerted cleanup efforts didn’t start until the 1990s. Removal of Badger Ammo’s 1,400 buildings took place after the plant was decommissioned in 1997. Now the most contaminated corners of the 7,300-acre site are clean, at least to levels deemed safe for grassland birds, hikers and bicyclists — those who will tread most lightly on the land.
That will suffice for prairie restoration, the primary focus of the property’s new landlords. The Sauk Prairie State Recreation Area — 3,385 acres of the original ammo plant — will be managed by the state Department of Natural Resources. Cattle and bison may come to graze on much of the remainder, under the auspices of the Ho-Chunk Nation and Dairy Forage Research Center.
A not altogether copacetic mix of conservation and recreational uses is proposed in the draft master plan for the state recreation area, which the DNR has submitted for final approval by the Natural Resources Board on Dec. 14.
While hikers needn’t worry about coming into contact with carcinogens at the site, it’s noteworthy that the plan does not risk longer-term exposure that could come from camping there. And the absence of an ATV trail, strongly opposed by fans of silent sports, is no longer part of the DNR’s plan or a threat to churning up suspect soil. (The Wisconsin Nonmotorized Recreation and Transportation Trails Council, on which I serve, passed a resolution in favor of “low-impact and nature-based recreation” and against ATV trails or a shooting range.)
Yet the plan does allow for dual-sport motorcycles (ones that can be ridden on and off roads), which could disturb the polluted dirt that remains beneath the surface in some corners. Furthermore, launchers of model rockets, an unintended parody of the machinery of war that laid waste to the area, will be permitted to upset the tranquility and habitat under cultivation up to nine days per year. And despite considerable opposition to the idea, the property remains a backup site for a firearms shooting range, should another location not be found elsewhere in southern Wisconsin.
These proposed uses threaten to derail decades of local advocacy for safe and sustainable use of this vast tract of unique real estate. A 2003 DNR inventory of Badger’s natural resources found 97 likely breeding species of birds, among them grassland-loving meadowlarks, bobolinks, bobwhite quail and dickcissels.
“It’s all about the grassland birds. That’s what the science tells us is the value of Badger,” says Laura Olah, executive director of Citizens for Safe Water Around Badger, the tenacious group she cofounded in 1990. “Any use that brings a lot of noise, that is disruptive, that’s going to cause erosion and disturb nesting are things that should fall away as not a good idea.”
Seventy miles of disused roads still exist on the property. The DNR plans to use some of the roadways but remove a lot of them, too, to make way for 20 miles’ worth of hiking trails, 15 miles of family-friendly biking trails, 12 miles of trail for horseback riding, 10 miles of mountain bike singletrack and another 4.5 miles of the Great Sauk Trail.
The proposal to allow motorcycle riders to take over 50 percent of these biking and equestrian trails for up to six days is the most worrisome part of the draft plan. Which trails will be “repurposed” for this is as unclear as the reasons these machines are more acceptable than ATVs.
When the Wisconsin Off-Highway Motorcycle Association in 2012 urged local club members to lobby the DNR for access to the new recreation area, it provided a sample letter that said riders prefer singletrack trail that is “narrow, often in wooded areas” with “elevation changes.” That sounds a lot like the hilly northernmost portion of the property, closest to Devil’s Lake State Park, as the majority of the land to the south is flat and wide open.
These events or races (the plan neither authorizes nor prohibits racing or specifies whether a 25 mph speed limit on the existing roads would be enforced) will be limited to 100 motorcycles per day for up to six days a year. These events will close the trails to all other users. The DNR insists event organizers would be responsible for fixing any damage done to the trails, hopefully to the standard necessary for safe and enjoyable bicycling the rest of the
That portion of the plan sounds shortsighted, especially in comparison to the news that 4.5 miles of abandoned rail corridor within Badger is to become part of the Great Sauk Trail. This segment of multiuse trail — open to cyclists and other self-propelled users in the warm weather months and snowmobilers in the winter — is the lynchpin for a trail that not only links Sauk City and Prairie du Sac to Devil’s Lake, Wisconsin’s most popular state park, but is key to the Great Sauk Trail extending from Middleton, just west of Madison, through the park and on to Reedsburg. From there trail users would be able to continue on the 400 State Trail to Elroy, through the celebrated tunnels on the Elroy-Sparta State Trail and on to two other state trails that take riders another 80 miles along the La Crosse and Mississippi rivers en route to Marshland.
It could still take years to fund and construct the Great Sauk Trail and the other trails planned for the Sauk Prairie State Recreation Area. (Add the cost of restoring native habitat and building a visitor center and the DNR says it needs $9 million.) So why risk having to rebuild those trails by allowing motorcycles to rip them up a few days a year? After decades of abuse subjected to the former Badger site, a commitment to treading lightly on the land is overdue.
Anyone wishing to speak on the draft master plan at the Natural Resources Board Dec. 14 meeting must register by 11 a.m. on Dec. 9 (email Laurie.Ross@wisconsin.gov or call 608-267-7420). Written testimony is due then, too.
Joel Patenaude serves on the Wisconsin Nonmotorized Recreation and Transportation Trails Council.