Citizens succeed at curbing hunting in Wis. state parks
Chances are you were among the thousands of Wisconsin residents recently riled up by a controversial law opening nearly all state parks and trails to hunting and trapping seven months out of the year. Until the Natural Resources Board, on December 11, voted unanimously to curb Act 168, also known as the Sporting Heritage Bill, by limiting hunting on these state lands to November 15 through December 15 and the month of April, many in the majority of nonhunting park users expressed concern.
As it happens, the creators of the Wisconsin state park system never considered allowing hunting and might have opposed the idea just as strongly.
Wisconsin was the first state in the nation to create a state park when it designated most of Vilas County "The State Park" in 1878. At over 760 square miles, this massive park was created to preserve pristine land from logging. However, the lumber barons were far too powerful and their political connections over-rode the park designation.
The birth of the Wisconsin State Park system came several years later when architect John Nolan drafted the guidelines for a statewide park program that included the Dells, Devil's Lake, Peninsula and Wyalusing parks.
The Wisconsin State Parks were envisioned as a refuge for residents and wildlife. The intent was to preserve the state's unique properties for future generations. There is no call for hunting and trapping in the state parks original charter.
Over the years, the shift towards allowing hunting in particular park properties based on prescription and public safety has occurred. In 2001, an ad hoc committee convened by the DNR studied the issue and the agency opened seven parks to hunting in a short-term pilot program. (This writer was a member of the committee.) The pilot program allowed hunting on a limited basis in specific areas during specific hunting seasons. Some conflicts with and displacements of traditional park users resulted, but it didn't affect the majority of park users.
This measured approach to hunting in state parks came to a screeching halt when a last-minute amendment to Act 168, proffered by Rep. Jeff Mursau, a Crivitz Republican, opened up nearly all 49 state parks and most state trails, including segments of the National Scenic Ice Age Trail on state land. The Wisconsin Legislature overwhelming passed Act 168 last April and Gov. Scott Walker promptly signed the bill into law.
As with most legislation, the devil was in the details. Many legislators had no clue the law opened the state parks and trails to hunting and trapping. Meanwhile, the bill's sponsors and pro-hunting legislators trumpeted their accomplishment. The Legislature handed off the rule making to the DNR'S Natural Resources Board.
State residents speak out
The general public gradually became aware of the hunting in parks issue as organizations such as the Friends of Wisconsin State Parks, Wisconsin Nordic Network, Ice Age Trail Alliance and others informed their members, who in turn started expressing their concerns with lawmakers and NRB members. Once Wisconsin residents, who primarily enjoy hiking, biking, snowshoeing and cross-country skiing in the parks, became engaged, it changed the dynamics of the discussion. And it became evident that many people are passionate about their parks.
That Wisconsin already had seven million acres of huntable land compared to 100,000 acres of state parks irked many nonhunting park users. Over 50 percent of Wisconsin residents consider themselves park and trail users, but only 23 percent of residents hunt. Park lands often represent the only natural haven for residents wanting to distance themselves from hunting and guns.
"I can't believe the Legislature pitted user groups against each other by opening parks to hunting," said Jerry Moriarity, a Friends of the Kettle Moraine board member. "It also seems absurd to add more guns to state parks. It flies in the face of the national debate on gun violence."
In the past, advocacy on behalf of traditional park and trail users has been difficult because park users are often out-gunned (pun intended) by organized interests. However, the hunting/trapping in parks issue ignited widespread opposition and galvanized support throughout the state. More than 2,000 letters and emails sent to the DNR emphasized traditional park use. Broad bipartisan support then pressured the NRB to weaken the hunting/trapping provision.
As the law now stands, instead of a seven-month season, hunting and trapping will be allowed from November 15 through December 15, with deer bow hunting allowed in April. In addition some specific parks will allow a deer bow-hunting season from November 15 to early January. The NRB also limited the type of traps used in state parks. Leg hold traps will not be allowed under the new rules. To permit them, the NRB concluded, would endanger many animals not targeted by trappers, as well as dogs and small children.
Most park users feel the NRB did the right thing by scaling back the hunting and trapping provisions allowed under the Act 168. Users groups sense this is a victory for traditional park enthusiasts, who made their voices heard during this contentious discussion.
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Outdoor writer Paul Smith wrote there is a cost to be borne by hunters. "The controversy created by Act 168 showed the risk of driving such change through a limited number of special interest groups and the Legislature. It also shed light on the valuable, moderating role of the NRB."
Act 168 co-sponsor Steve Kestell, an Elkhart Lake Republican, said he didn't feel the hunting and trapping amendment was necessary and the NRB fashioned the right solution. "My impression is that most folks, both in and out of the Legislature, believe that concerns have been addressed in a way that makes additional statutory changes unlikely. There might be legislation introduced, but I don't think it would be successful in light of the changes that have already been made."
'Fight far from over'
Not everyone feels this is the end of the road, however. Rep Mursau, for one, wasn't happy with the results. "Hunting, fishing and trapping are constitutional rights in the state of Wisconsin," he testified before the NRB. "Regardless of what you hear today, peace and quiet are not constitutional rights." After the NRB made its decision, Mursau did not return phone calls for this story.
This debate may not end here. The National Rife Association's lobbying arm, the Institute of Legislative Action, didn't mince words: "Members of the NRB caved to radical activists and gutted the reasonable implementation of the DNR's proposal. This fight is far from over!"
Let's hope the NRA is wrong.
Mike McFadzen enjoys cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, paddle sports, biking and running when his day job doesn't interfere. He serves on the Wisconsin State Trails Council, Friends of Wisconsin State Parks and the Sheboygan Nonmotorized Pilot Program. He lives in Greenbush, Wisconsin, with his wife, Karen, and dog, Woody.
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