A federal appeals court is considering arguments both for and against temporarily restricting high-impact activities at the Sauk Prairie Recreation Area.
Its ruling could halt off-road motorcycle racing, dog training with firearms, and Army helicopter training exercises on the state-owned property until a local conservation group’s lawsuits challenging state and federal agencies’ management of the site are settled.
Sauk Prairie Conservation Alliance attorneys on Thursday argued before the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago that such recreation could cause irreparable harm to area wildlife.
^p“The Alliance presented evidence from the Master Plan that was written by the Department of Natural Resources, as well as affidavits from four scientific experts, all of which showed that these high-impact activities are likely to cause irreparable harm,” said Alliance attorney Jacob Aronson.
^pAronson said the high-impact activities have the potential to kill or harm individual animals.
^p“If there’s a bird that dies or a snake that gets run over, that dead animal cannot return, and therefore that clearly meets the definition of irreparable harm,” he said. “Even if at a population level over the long term, the habitat or the wildlife may recover.”
^pRobert Oakley, a federal attorney representing the Department of Interior, said the Alliance’s argument for a preliminary injunction “conflates harm with irreparable harm.” He said Alliance attorneys failed to demonstrate that irreparable harm will be done to wildlife on a population level before the case is likely decided next spring.
“Contrary to what counsel says, I don’t know of any case that holds that the death of a single bird or other animal is irreparable harm,” Oakley said. “These animals are not endangered species, and counsel is not here representing snakes or birds.”
The Alliance in June filed a request for a preliminary injunction in the U.S. District Court of Western Wisconsin to ban high-impact recreation until the case is settled, but the motion was denied. The group was denied a similar request in Sauk County Circuit Court in March.
The property in question was taken by the federal government for construction of a propellant plant during World War II. After the Badger Army Ammunition Plant was decommissioned in 1997, the U.S. General Services Administration oversaw the division of the 7,300-acre property between several stakeholders. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources claimed more than 3,000 acres for the Sauk Prairie Recreation Area in 2011 through the National Parks Service.
The Sauk Prairie Recreation Area is located immediately south of Devil’s Lake State Park between Highways 12 and 78.
The Alliance filed suit against the DNR in December 2016 and the General Services Administration and the federal Department of Interior’s National Park Service in January. The environmentalists claim the federal agencies inadequately supervised the DNR as management of the 3,400-acre property was transferred from federal to state control. The lawsuit argues the agencies violated federal law by allowing the DNR to include high-impact recreation in its management plan without a thorough analysis of the activities’ environmental impact.
Oakley said there are inconsistencies with activities the Alliance seeks to ban, and those it is willing to permit. He noted the Alliance is opposed to dog training with firearms, but not hunting, which is permitted throughout the rest of the property.
Oakley also pointed out that while motorcycle racing on the property’s biking and equestrian trails would only be permitted for six days out of the year, they could still be operated on the area’s roadways throughout the year. He added that the Army’s helicopter training exercises have been occurring for decades, and the helicopters take off and land from a landfill on the property that is closed to the public.
“They talk about the motorcycle usage as though it’s occurring 365 days a year,” he said. “They don’t talk about the fact that the class II dog training is occurring on one 72-acre parcel that butts a highway and is not continuous with the rest of the park.”
Alliance leaders said they expect the federal appeals court to decide on the injunction request within a month.