BY MIKE MCFADZEN
The Silent Alarm tracks recreation and natural resource issues that affect you. Have an issue in your area? Contact Silent Sports at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Northwest WI State Bike Trails Move Toward Motorized Use
This story has most sane people scratching their heads. Two longtime Wisconsin bike trails, including one that serves as an Ice Age Trail segment, are up-in-the-air as to long-term viability as bike trails. The Gander Dancer and Stower Seven Lakes Trails are prime examples of how co-managed state trails become political footballs between county boards and DNR management. Dozens of meetings over several years by county boards, committees, DNR and local communities appear to show that no state trail may be safe from local politics.
Many Wisconsin state trails are co-managed. A typical scenario is that the DNR owns the trail and a county partner or local government unit operates the trail. These “partners” create required master plans which determine trail use and other specifics. The DNR’s responsibility is to oversee the plan process and cannot modify or enforce the master plan.
The Gandy Dancer and Stower Seven Lakes are rails to trails projects, in which abandoned rail grades transition to trails based on state laws. The Gandy Dancer was created in July 1989 with a memorandum of understanding (MOU) between Polk and Burnett Counties and the DNR. The MOU agreed to develop a non-motorized recreational trail with winter snowmobile use. The Stower Seven Lakes Trail was developed some years later as a non-motorized trail. Polk and Burnett Counties applied for and received non-motorized funding to convert the rail grade to trails. In 2000, the Gandy Dancer Trail between St. Croix Falls and Frederic was designated as part of the Ice Age National Scenic Trail which is recognized worldwide as a non-motorized hiking trail.
The cities along these trails – including Amery, Siren, and Osceola – embraced the project from the start catering to bikers and hikers. Rest stops were built and bike/hike friendly infrastructure was developed. Bikers from across Wisconsin, Minnesota and other parts of the country started making these trails a biking destination due to its scenic topography and supporting communities.
Then trouble reared its ugly head. It all started when the DNR granted a special use permit for an antique car group to drive on the Gandy Dancer. Then in 2012, after pressure from motorized advocates, Burnett County considered amending its master plan to make the Gandy a motorized trail. In November 2012, The Burnett County Board backed off and voted unanimously to keep the trail non-motorized.
In April 2013, a Burnett County committee approved “frozen ground” ATV use on a portion of Gandy Dancer with no public hearing. Later, the DNR granted a special use permit for a disabled veteran’s ATV Ride on the trail celebrating International Peace Day. Then in 2014, the DNR granted another permit to the same group for a Veteran’s ATV Ride. With little or no warning, bikers and hikers were stunned to see ATVs coming at them. Several complaints were filed with the DNR. ATV enthusiasts appear to be hiding behind the shield of patriotism to promote motorized use on the trail. Also, the sponsoring group didn’t consult with local war vets who cycle the trail. Trail users were puzzled why the ATV ride wasn’t held on one of the many local ATV trails instead of parading through town on a bike trail, raising the ire of local residents.
From 2015 through 2017 Polk and Burnett county board machinations continued with numerous meetings. A Polk County Board Committee held a 2 ½ hour public meeting in which the majority of testimony was against motorized events on the trail. The Polk County Board disregarded the testimony and voted 13-1 to allow these events. During this on again/off again motorized use and winter motorized use, ATVs damaged the trail, leaving segments not rideable for bicycles.
Former Polk County Board President William Johnson takes issue with current trail management.
“It’s the biggest clown show anyone has ever seen,” said Johnson. “The DNR has let this trail use issue go on for almost 30 years, pitting neighbor against neighbor, family member against family member, and they seem to be willing to let it go on for another 30 years.”
Johnson reasons the DNR should be a leader for the state trail system and make the operating rules the same for all trails operating under the state trail pass system. Johnson told Silent Sports that “the DNR co-management practices really don’t work anymore. Purchasing a state trail pass is a contract with the DNR to provide equal conditions and opportunities on the trails requiring a pass, anywhere in the state. That’s the customer service thing to do.”
Non-motorized trail users continue to support the trails in a big way. Thousands flock to the trails supporting local businesses. In 2017 Polk County trail passes totaled $10,680.00.
Local Luck, Wisconsin, business owner Brook Waleen, would like to see consistency in trail management.
“Polk County is now re-writing a master plan that is only five years old,” Waleen told Silent Sports. “It’s next to impossible to manage trails that flip based on county political situations. Most of us aren’t anti-motors. We just want to maintain the integrity of bike trails. Families show up with their kids not expecting to be sharing the trail with ATVs. It can be dangerous.”
Polk County Administrator Dana Frey has been charged with creating a Polk County Trail Master Plan.
“The County Board has criteria for deciding what happens with county trails,” said Frey. “The keys are economic impact on surrounding communities, consistency with adjoining trails and level of use.”
Frey will report back to the County Board in spring with board action likely in summer. Frey wouldn’t share his thoughts on what should happen to the trails.
Much of the opposition to motorized use comes from property owners who live adjacent to the trails.
“The outcome is pre-determined if Polk County doesn’t consider the opinion of those living closest to the trails,” according to Johnson.
Friends of Wisconsin State Parks (FWSP) President Bill Zager, is also concerned about how state trails are managed. Zager says FWSP supports trail management.
In 2016 FWSP issued a policy statement on co-managed state trails which states, FWSP supports DNR oversight to review and approve/disapprove or modify local government unit master plans for state trails. Zager is also a member of the Friends of Stower Seven Lakes Trail which is currently non-motorized.
“We’ve been seeing lots of ski and fat bike use on the trail – it would be a shame to add motors to this,” Zager told Silent Sports.
A DNR official was contacted but did not return my call in time for this article.
The future of Wisconsin state trails remains uncertain. The Gandy Dancer and Stower Seven Lakes are serving as the canary in the coal mine on whether trails built with non-motorized monies for non-motorized use will continue; or if county partners can dictate whatever trail use they want. Engaging legislators on the issue of co-managed state trails is the best long-term solution. Until then, trail use may be subject to the whims of local politics.
Sidebars: Both the Gandy Dancer and Stower Seven Lakes Trails are limestone surfaced and built on former rail grades. The Gandy Dancer is a 98-mile interstate trail that crosses into Minnesota and then back again into Wisconsin on its way from St. Croix Falls to its connection with the Saunders State Trail just south of Superior. In Wisconsin, the trail is maintained and managed by Polk, Burnett and Douglas Counties. The Minnesota DNR manages the section of the Gandy Dancer trail in Minnesota. Parts of the trails are designated either motorized or non-motorized. The trail is named for the work crews who laid the railroad tracks.
The 14-mile Stower Seven Lakes Trail is currently non-motorized. It begins in Amery, travels through the communities of Deronda, Wanderoos and Nye, ending near Dresser. The trail passes through maple and oak forests, wetlands, prairies and farmlands and past many picturesque lakes.
Source: DNR website