A local conservation group’s request to ban “high impact” activities at the Sauk Prairie Recreation Area while its lawsuits challenging a state plan for the property are pending was denied Wednesday in Sauk County court.
Sauk County Circuit Court Judge Guy Reynolds said his ruling to deny the Sauk Prairie Conservation Alliance’s motion for a stay of high impact uses was a “close call.” But the court ultimately decided the group did not show that it would suffer “irreparable harm” should activities like off-road motorcycling, dog training involving firearms and helicopter training be allowed on the state-owned property.
Reynolds said Alliance attorneys demonstrated the “potential for environmental damage” if high impact uses included in the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources’ plan for the property are permitted. But their contention that the DNR’s environmental impact statement to address the uses is inadequate is not enough to prove environmental damage will take place.
“This weakness, if true, is not the same as an affirmative showing by plaintiff at this stage that the permitted uses will, unless stayed, cause plaintiffs, or the environment or public interests to suffer irreparable harm,” Reynolds said. “Irreparable harm must be shown to exist, and it is plaintiff’s burden to show it – not the DNR’s burden to show that it does not.”
Sauk Prairie Conservation Alliance attorney and Perkins Coie LLC partner Brian Potts said he disagrees with the court’s reasoning because it’s impossible to prove that irreparable harm will take place before the property has been used for high impact recreation.
“Judge Reynolds doesn’t seem to think motorcycles and helicopters are going to cause any irreparable harm,” he said. “If they do, we’ll come back with pictures.”
Wisconsin Department of Justice attorney Anna Wildeman, who is representing the DNR, said she was pleased with the court’s decision and will continue working to ensure that the Sauk Prairie Recreation Area is a property that can be enjoyed by all Wisconsin residents.
“The DNR remains committed to working with our partners, including the Alliance, to make this recreation area something that everyone can use,” she said. “We’ll move forward on the legal questions and factual disputes ahead of us.”
Reynolds said his ruling also was influenced by the court’s responsibility to preserve the “status quo” of the property. Because the Sauk Prairie Conservation Alliance has conducted its restoration work while the state Army National Guard has practiced helicopter exercises for almost 20 years, Reynolds said both property uses should continue.
As for motorcycling and dog training, Reynolds said proponents of those uses would be harmed if they are not been allowed to use the property.
“Clearly a partial stay will result in harm to other interested parties, namely the persons interested in the two uses that are objected to here,” he said. “Namely those persons who wish to use the parts of the property as limited for dual sport cycling and class two dog training.”
Sauk Prairie Conservation Alliance Executive Director Charlie Luthin said the group disagrees with the court’s ruling and will meet with its legal counsel to discuss other options to bar high impact recreation on the property, possibly at the federal level.
“While the Alliance is disappointed with the judge’s ruling, we are confident that we have strong factual and legal arguments in support of a stay,” he said. “The Alliance and its attorneys will meet shortly to discuss other alternative courses of action for seeking a stay.”
In the meantime, Luthin said the Alliance will continue its restoration efforts, including planned tours of the area throughout the summer.
Follow Jake Prinsen on Twitter @prinsenjake