In 2005, the people of Wisconsin received a rare gift: 3,400 acres of land between Devil’s Lake State Park and the Wisconsin River. Designated by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources as the Sauk Prairie Recreation Area, these lands are part of the former Badger Army Ammunition Plant.
The landscape embraces a remarkable array of natural and cultural assets: unique geological features; diverse plant and animal communities, ranging from forest to savanna to open grassland; significant populations of imperiled grassland birds; Native American landmarks; farmsteads sacrificed to serve the cause of World War II; remnants of the Army’s half-century of production.
Now we have come to another defining moment in the history of this rich place. The people of Wisconsin get to decide what we will do with this gift. For the last three years, the Wisconsin DNR has been engaged in planning for the area. It recently released its draft master plan and environmental impact statement.
How did we get to this moment? In 1997, Badger was decommissioned. Local citizens, organizations and communities began working together to forge a positive future for the Badger lands. It was a difficult challenge. A legacy of farmer eviction, environmental contamination, and unemployment hung heavy over Badger. Many competing interests emerged to stake a claim for parts of the property.
In 2001, the multi-stakeholder Badger Reuse Committee prepared a consensus report – the Badger Reuse Plan – that provided the foundation for the transfer and collaborative repurposing of the Badger lands. The committee included three representatives from the State of Wisconsin, including one from the DNR. Following the reuse plan, large parts of Badger were eventually conveyed to the USDA Dairy Forage Research Center, the State of Wisconsin, and, in 2014, to the Ho-Chunk Nation.
The reuse plan called for all of Badger’s landowners and stakeholders to commit to a future that would integrate four main uses: land restoration, agriculture, education and research, and recreation. The plan’s values and recommendations were built into the land transfer process. The DNR’s acquisition of land — at no cost to Wisconsin taxpayers — was accomplished through an agreement with the U.S. government via the National Park Service. In that agreement, the State of Wisconsin pledged to adhere to the reuse vision and to plan low-impact recreation for the site.
How well does the WDNR’s draft master reflect these shared commitments? How does it advance the cooperative vision?
The plan, to its credit, gives high priority to extensive restoration of the SPRA’s prairies, savannas, woodlands, and wetlands. It recognizes the great potential for conservation agriculture on the Badger lands and for partnering (especially with the Dairy Forage Research Center and the Ho-Chunk Nation) to realize that potential. The plan does excellent work in highlighting the educational opportunities inherent in Badger’s history and landscape. To make the most of these cultural values, the DNR again will need to work in close partnership with its neighbors. The plan also places welcome emphasis on opportunities for historical, agricultural, and scientific research at Badger — an emphasis lacking in earlier stages of planning.
Not surprisingly, the draft plan focuses largely on recreation. There is much to commend in the plan, especially its provisions for a visitor’s center, interpretive sites, hiking and biking trails, wildlife watching, picnic areas, and hunting and fishing opportunities. However, the plan includes a number of recreational activities incompatible with the other uses of the Badger lands. Earlier proposals for an ATV track and a long-range rifle range have fortunately been dropped, but the current draft includes dual-sport motorcycles, model rocketry, “special events,” and other loud, high-impact, and disruptive uses.
In 2001, the reuse committee struggled with the question of how to accommodate various recreational interests. Large as the Badger “footprint” is, the land cannot be all things to all people. The committee had to make compromises. We came to understand that low-impact and mutually compatible activities would best serve all the landowners’ needs, and the overall vision, going forward. The DNR made its commitment to those uses in its agreement with the National Park Service and in its own analysis of the property. Why the draft plan includes inappropriate activities — especially with inadequate analysis of potential short- and long-term environmental impacts, and with concerns about the DNR’s enforcement capacity statewide — is a mystery.
In its final report, the Badger Reuse Committee defined many shared values, but none more important that this: that future uses should “contribute to the reconciliation and resolution of past conflicts.” Let that be the guide to all decisions we make together about the gift we have received.
The public comment period on the draft plan ends Friday. I encourage you to visit DNR’s website for more details and to comment.