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Upham Woods fences off river access

A fence on the Upham Woods Outdoor Learning Center property has upset many Wisconsin River recreationalists who have used the launch site for decades.

Jeff Smith, Dells Events

For nearly two years, a Dells group has tried to convince Upham Woods to remove a fence along County Highway N without success, and it doesn’t appear that the fence will be removed.

Debbie Kinder, president of the Stewards of the Dells of the Wisconsin River and a kayaker has been one of the leaders of the groups opposing the fence. On the other side is the UW Extension and Colleges based in Madison, owners of the camp on the Upper Dells with land that includes Blackhawk Island. The camp hosts nearly 10,000 4-H members from across the state in summer camps each year and is formally known as the Upham Woods Outdoor Learning Center. It also provides educational programs for children and adults at the camp and in the community during the year.

Canoers and kayakers for decades used the site off Highway N as a launch site for a trip on the river because of its safety, Kinder said. The channel around Blackhawk Island is a no wake zone and does not have tour boats or speeding boats using it.

After putting up the fence, the camp also had the Juneau County Highway Department put up no parking signs along Highway N. However, those signs came down in the spring of 2017. The camp also put up no trespassing signs along the river. It has had problems for years with people trespassing on the island, leaving litter including broken beer bottles and even faces.

The most recent meeting of the two sides was in late November. Kinder and Ray Feldman, a Mauston attorney and Juneau County Board of Supervisors met with Steven Wildeck, a vice chancellor with the UW Extension and Colleges Division of Administration and Finance.

After the meeting, Feldman wrote to Wildeck in December. in a telephone interview with the Events, he said that the Juneau County Sheriff’s Department spends a lot of time answering calls from Upham Woods about trespassing, drinking on the property and littering. The time spent there by the county’s boat patrol was out of proportion to the size of that area of Juneau County, he said. The boat patrol must also patrol the Juneau County sides of Castle Rock and Petenwell lakes, which are much larger and have more people on them.

Feldman, who is on the county’s law enforcement committee, said the county boat patrol is based in Mauston. Going to Camp Upham Woods is awkward, he said, because the boat must be transported to River Bay Campground where it is launched and then proceed to Upham Woods. It is also time consuming when Wisconsin Dells and its police are about a mile away, he said.

Feldman said it would be better if Upham Woods annexed to the city of Wisconsin Dells. In 2011, Upham Woods asked about connecting to the city’s water and sewer lines because of a failing septic tank system at the camp. It made the request to the joint sewer commission of Lake Delton and Wisconsin Dells, but the two municipalities have a rule that sewer and water connections would only be extended to parcels within the limits of either municipality.

Wisconsin Dells Mayor Brian Landers had been involved in trying to resolve the conflict between the kayakers and Upham Woods, and annexation had been discussed.

In an email, Landers said, “I often wondered to myself why Upham was not in our city. I personally think it is a hidden jewel in our community and do feel that if Upham petitions for annexation, the city should seriously consider it. Upham has offered a lot of public access and programs and has even sponsored and held events for our parks programs. I also do think their campers would be better served with the training and resources of our police department should something unfortunate happen there. Plus, the more contiguous lands the city has control over on the Upper Dells could only strengthen its conservatory status and overall protection.”

However, Landers said, he is no longer involved in trying to resolve the issue. “I want to be clear that I am not taking a position for the kayakers or Upham. As the efforts to resolve the fence issue broke down, I stepped away from trying to help-out. When anyone asked about the possibility of annexation, I also made it clear that our police have better things to do than supervise a fence or chase down beach trespassers. I think some considered annexation as the magic bullet, which it is not. The magic bullet is really both sides listening and trying to resolve this in a mature fashion.”

At one point, Upham Woods offered a compromise to allow kayakers access to a launch area near its swim area. It also offered to provide carts to bring the kayaks from the parking lot to that area and for kayakers to be volunteers at the camp.

A program to teach kayaking at the camp had no enrollees, Kinder said.

Wildeck, the UW Extension and Colleges Vice Chancellor, said annexation is still on the table. In a telephone interview, he acknowledged conversations with the city and that the UW has not requested annexation, but the UW has not rejected the idea either, he said

Feldman also raised questions about blocking entrance to navigable waterway. He cited two Supreme Court cases, that he said gave the public right of way into lands adjacent to a navigable stream up to the high-water mark. A high-water mark is the highest water will reach during a river or stream’s flood stage. Where that high-water mark is a question that hasn’t been answered, although Feldman thought that it probably reached the fence.

Wildeck did not respond to Feldman’s issue of the high-water mark. He called the meeting with Feldman and Kinder helpful, but said he did not have anything specific to say about that.

The UW Board of Regents owns the Upham Woods property, he said, and it is intended for use exclusively for UW education. Its programs are consistent with that mission. The property is an outdoor laboratory and is treated as a school. Paddlers and others entering the property interfere with that use. The fence is there for these four reasons, he said:

One is the protection of youth visiting the camp. Since the molestation case at the University of Pennsylvania, the university must do everything it can to protect minors, he said. The camp has had some instances where people wander up and are near the children.

Second, the fence helps the university avoid liability. The location and launching of kayaks caused concerns that people would get hurt and the university be liable.

The third is the university has a responsibility to preserve the land in its natural state. The use of the site for launching kayaks caused paths to be made in the banks. It was damaging the natural landscaping.

The fourth issue is littering. The kayakers have said they do not litter and clean up any litter they see, but littering is a problem for the camp near its waterfront access areas, Wildeck said.

While the fence has not solved all the management risks, Wildeck said conditions have improved. The risks have been lowered, litter has been reduced, and the land has been restored. Managing the risks never solves the problems entirely, he said.

Wildeck noted he had driven up to Upham Woods (his office is in Madison) to have the conversation with Feldman and Kinder. “Some people are upset…” The UW’s decisions are to protect youth and serve the UW’s mission. It strives to live in harmony with its neighbors, he said.

Meanwhile, the Stewards will be meeting Thursday, Jan. 25 at 6:30 p.m. at the Kilbourn Public Library and will be continuing to discuss how to convince the university and Upham Woods to remove the fence.