Prairie planning II (copy)

Sauk Prairie Conservation Alliance members lay out plans to restore a section of the Sauk Prairie Recreation Area in March. A Sauk County judge on Wednesday granted the group's request for a contested case hearing challenging the DNR's master plan for the property. 

News Republic file photo

A Sauk County judge has ruled in favor of a local conservation group’s request for a contested case hearing challenging the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources’ master plan for the Sauk Prairie Recreation Area.

The Sauk County Circuit Court decision will allow the Sauk Prairie Conservation Alliance to argue before an administrative law judge why it believes the DNR’s 223-page master plan and environmental impact statement for the state-owned property are flawed. The group will be able to support its claims with input from environmental and legal experts.

“This is a big deal because, until now, my client has not had a chance to put forth any of its own evidence as to the harm high-impact activities will cause to the land or cross-examine the DNR’s staff,” said Conservation Alliance attorney Brian Potts.

A spokesman for the DNR has said the agency will not comment on pending litigation.

The Conservation Alliance in the past year has filed several lawsuits challenging state and federal agencies’ management of the 3,400-acre property, located immediately south of Devil’s Lake State Park between Highways 12 and 78. The group contends the DNR included “high impact” recreation in its master plan for the area without a thorough environmental analysis.

The conservationists claim off-road motorcycling, dog training with firearms and helicopter training exercises conducted by the Army National Guard could cause irreparable harm to area wildlife. Potts, a partner at Perkins Coie LLP in Madison, said the Conservation Alliance will ask the administrative judge to order the DNR to rewrite its master plan and environmental analysis without including the high-impact recreation.

Conservation Alliance Executive Director Charlie Luthin said the contested case hearing will allow the group to articulate its case more effectively.

“By being able to bring in experts in their field, we should be able to really present our case much more strongly than just having a judge read the complaint and make a decision based on the evidence in written form,” he said.

Before and after the state Natural Resources Board approved the DNR’s master plan for the Sauk Prairie Recreation Area in December 2016, the Conservation Alliance submitted requests for a contested case hearing on the matter. The requests were denied by the DNR.

The group filed suit in February 2017, contending that a hearing on the master plan and environmental impact statement are mandatory under state law. The DNR and NRB argued granting the request is discretionary. The parties also disagreed whether the DNR’s environmental impact statement could be argued in a separate hearing.

In their court filings, Conservation Alliance attorneys pointed to a statutory provision that requires the DNR to hold public hearings on recreation areas in the county where the largest portion of the property is located. In his ruling, Sauk County Circuit Judge Guy D. Reynolds agreed with their legal analysis.

“Under circumstances of this case involving a state recreation area such as Sauk Prairie Recreation Area, the DNR must hold public hearings on the master plan for use after it has been prepared,” he wrote. “That is, such hearings are mandatory, not discretionary.”

While Reynolds agreed the hearing on the DNR’s master plan is required, he did not agree the Conservation Alliance is entitled to a separate hearing on the DNR’s environmental impact statement.

Potts said he expects the contested case hearing will occur in 6-9 months. He said he anticipates the hearing will take place either in Sauk or Dane counties, but the decision is up to the administrative judge.

Follow Jake Prinsen on Twitter @prinsenjake

Baraboo News Republic Reporter