A Sauk County judge will take additional time to decide whether or not “high impact” activities will be allowed at the Sauk Prairie Recreation Area while several lawsuits challenging a state plan for the property are pending.
Sauk County Circuit Court Judge Guy Reynolds on Monday postponed ruling on a local conservation group’s request to halt some activities at the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources-managed property until a March 15 hearing. Reynolds made the decision after hearing arguments both for and against the motion to temporarily halt certain recreational activities.
The Sauk Prairie Conservation Alliance hopes to prevent high-impact recreation while its lawsuits challenging the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources’ 223-page master plan for the property and the state Natural Resources Board’s Dec. 14, 2016, approval of the plan are settled.
Since the DNR’s plan was approved Dec. 14, off-road motorcycling, dog training involving firearms and helicopter training conducted by the Wisconsin National Guard have been allowed on the property.
Sauk Prairie Conservation Alliance attorney Brian Potts argued the court should grant the organization’s request to stop these activities because irreparable harm could be done to the environment during the time it will take for the group’s lawsuits to settle. He said allowing such uses for the property could disturb various ground nesting birds and other wildlife native to the area.
“You can’t take back the environmental harm that will be done caused by riding motorcycles, flying helicopters and playing paintball on the property,” he said.
DNR attorney Emily Ertel argued the potential for harm is not great enough to warrant immediate action by the court.
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She said state National Guard has used the property for helicopter training exercises during the same time period the Alliance has worked to restore the property to its original environmental state. Allowing such activities would not hurt the Alliance but could potentially hurt the National Guard, she said.
Ertel said the DNR has limited potential disturbances for area wildlife by placing the dog training area near the highway – where noise would be an issue anyway – and by limiting off-road motorcycling to six days a year. Motorcycles only would be allowed on half of the area’s bike and equestrian trails if a club is interested in using the property.
“DNR will work with the club to determine which trails are the most appropriate for motorcycle use at that time,” she said. “For example, if there’s a trail that may not be able to handle impact, then the DNR wouldn’t want to have that pre-designated as a trail that they could use.”
Potts argued the DNR has violated the Wisconsin Environmental Policy Act by failing to conduct a thorough environmental analysis of how the activities could affect the property’s wildlife. He compared the size of the DNR’s environmental impact statement with others conducted by state and federal agencies, some of which were hundreds of pages longer.
“You can just look at that and see that this is deficient,” he said, comparing the sizes of various reports. “This is not an environmental impact statement – this is shorter in fact than an environmental assessment would usually be.”
Ertel said the DNR used the best available science in drafting its environmental impact statement and complied with EPA requirements. She added the 3,000-acre area’s former use as a federal ammunition factory sometimes made it difficult to find reports on the best way to manage the property.
“In this master plan, DNR explicitly states that it used existing peer-review science and literature and its in-depth expertise to do the environmental analysis,” she said. “In many cases, there may not have been a lot of science available – as I stated earlier, this is a unique property.”