Karl Heil first started work as a ranger at Blue Mound State Park, about 30 miles west of Madison, Wisconsin, in 1981. Heil retired in 2010 after serving many years as park superintendent.
Before taking his post at Blue Mound, he said snowmobiling was “allowed all over the park, all night long and without authorization.” But that stopped under then park superintendent Norbert Karr, Heil’s boss.
“For a year or two after I started, there was a snowmobile trail through Pleasure Valley that connected to the Military Ridge State Trail,” Heil said, referring to an area on the eastern end of the park and the state trail that lies along the park’s southern border.
The state trail remains open to winter snowmobiling for it’s 40-mile length between Madison and Dodgeville.
But when private land north of the park changed hands in the early 1980s, the new owners did not want snowmobiles crossing their property. “The connection was broken, so the snowmobile trail through the park didn’t go anywhere and it was shut down,” Heil recalled.
For the remainder of his tenure, he said he only occasionally had to deal with a lost or rogue snowmobiler in the park.
It wasn’t until around 2008 that anyone voiced interest in having the two miles of snowmobile trail vaguely referenced in the state park’s 1984 master plan reopened. In the mean time, Heil allowed the establishment of snowshoeing and fat biking trails in Pleasure Valley.
“Pleasure Valley is aptly named,” said John Koffel, a member of the Friends of Blue Mound State Park. Largely undeveloped with no groomed ski trails, the deep, wooded ravines nevertheless attract snowshoers, fat bikers and backcountry skiers.
These are permitted uses in the 1,153-acre park, “while snowmobiling would be radically inconsistent,” Koffel said.
Nevertheless, Heil, who opposes snowmobiling in the park, says someone in late 2011 authorized mowing, brushing and tree cutting from the Military Ridge State Trail just east of the village park and down through Pleasure Valley.
“That was the first action that put Blue Mound State Park users on notice that the park was planning to allow snowmobiles to run through Pleasure Valley,” Heil said.
Then last winter, some snowmobilers were led to believe – mistakenly, according to Heil – that they could run in the ditches along Mounds Park Road, which intersects cross-country ski trails in two locations within the state park.
“Snowmobiles operating there last winter were operating in an undesignated area, a violation of Administrative Code 45, the set of rules governing state parks, and in fact were open to citations and corresponding fines,” Heil wrote in an email earlier this month.
Snowmobile reps apply pressure
Yet it was only in recent weeks that Koffel found out that, at least since July 2013, a lawyer and a lobbyist representing snowmobile clubs has been pressuring top officials at the Department of Natural Resources to reopen the long closed trail through the far eastern end of the park – and across existing silent sports trails.
“The (shuttered snowmobile) trail provides a vital connection between the Military Ridge Trail and the park’s southern boundary and many miles of integrated trails north of the park. Recent changes in land ownership have made the connection viable again,” wrote attorney Timm Speerschneider of the law firm DeWitt Ross & Stevens in a letter to DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp, an avid snowmobiler, dated July 12, 2013.
The letter and other correspondence was released by DNR officials to the Friends of Blue Mound State Park upon Koffel’s request.
Speerschneider wrote the letter on behalf of his clients, the Barneveld Snow Eagles and the Association of Wisconsin Snowmobile Clubs (AWSC). “The Eagles desire to reestablish a preexisting snowmobile trail in Blue Mound State Park,” the letter states, “at approximately the same location as it existed in 1984.”
In April 2013, Craig Kittleson, a local landscaper and owner of Extreme Motorsports, which services snowmobiles a couple miles east of the park, wrote to Sam Landes, executive director of the AWSC.
“Upon inspection of the trail this winter, the areas are used for random walking and occasional winter biking,” Kittleson wrote.
While Kittleson was correct to note that the proposed route of the snowmobile trail would not cross groomed cross-country ski trails, the slopes into the wooded ravine are frequently enjoyed by backcountry skiers.
DNR officials respond
“The issue is that in that time” – over the 25-plus years since the snowmobile trail through the park was abandoned – “silent sports trails have been developed in this area of the park and they are heavily used,” Wisconsin State Parks Director Dan Schuller emailed DNR Land Administrator Kurt Thiede on August 14, 2013.
“Local skiers have already voiced considerable opposition to the reopening of the snowmobile trail. We have committed to the local snowmobile club and the state snowmobile folks that we will work to review this, but we don’t want to create an antagonistic atmosphere with other users to do this,” Schuller wrote.
Yet in December 2013, AWSC President Doug Johnson emailed Schuller to ask why the old snowmobile trail couldn’t be reopened that winter.
“I realize that the wheels of bureaucracy can move rather slowly, but the volunteers from our local clubs have been patient for the last two years. What can we do to get them an answer so they can have this trailwork completed before significant snowfall?” Johnson asked Schuller.
The snowmobile trail was not opened last winter, nor will it be opened this winter. Apparently the wheels of bureaucracy will see to that.
Last week, Schuller told Silent Sports that before the DNR can allow snowmobiling within the park, the master plan for the park must be amended to permit it. And the Natural Resources Board must approve the initiation of a master plan amendment process. The soonest the NRB would do that would be at its December meeting.
NRB approval would trigger public hearings and a lengthy comment period. An email from one DNR official suggests “it will likely be an eight-month process.”
Silent sports trails need approval, too
Because it has been so long since the Blue Mound master plan was updated, Schuller said “a big amendment” is in order; one that incorporates not only a response to the request to reopen the old snowmobile trail, but also all the hiking, mountain biking and snowshoeing trails Heil allowed to be built over the years “by fiat,” Schuller said.
“The snowmobile trail will only be one part of this update,” said Schuler, who happened to start his DNR career as a ranger at Blue Mound State Park a week after Heil was hired there in 1981.
Heil concedes he allowed the Capital Off Road Pathfinders, a group of volunteer builders of mountain bike trails throughout Dane County, to construct many miles of singletrack within the park, some of which is today used by snowshoers and fat bikers in the winter.
“But there is a variance in place for mountain biking, not for snowmobiling,” Heil said.
In his emails, local snowmobiling proponent Kittleson pointed out a less desirable alternative to opening up the closed trail through the park. He suggested snowmobilers be allowed to leave the Military Ridge State Trail and ride the ditches along Mounds Park Road to Ryan Road within the boundaries of the state park.
Mounds Park Road, however, passes the main entrance to the park and intersects cross-country ski trails twice, he noted.
As it is, skiers tend to cross Mound Park Road cautiously, stopping to remove and pick up their skis before doing so.
The Town of Brigham has the authority to allow snowmobiling within the right-of-way, even if the state owns the adjacent land, according to Schuller.
“That might be an alternative to changing the trail-user dynamic within Pleasure Valley,” Schuller told Silent Sports.
But Heil contends that the state, not the township, owns the roadway. As proof, he points to signage informing motorists that they are required to pay the park admission fee in order to park along Mounds Park Road.
“If the DNR did not own the roadbed, vehicles parked on the public right of way would not require admission stickers,” Heil said.
He said the Town of Brigham has not and cannot designate Mounds Park Road as a snowmobile route. Yet some snowmobilers treated it as such when last snow covered.
“The DNR turned a blind eye towards this last winter but still enforces the sticker requirement for vehicles parked along the roadway,” Heil wrote.
Joel Patenaude is the editor of Silent Sports magazine.