DNR shuts down motorized uses on Stower Seven Lakes Trail

Eddie Emerson | Staff writer

POLK COUNTY - As the county received its first significant snowfall of the season, and as local snowmobile clubs were busy grooming the Stower Seven Lakes Trail to make it ready for snowmobiles, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources issued a written order, dated Feb. 6, shutting down snowmobile and other motorized use on the currently silent sports SSLT.
As the DNR was issuing its written order shutting down snowmobiles on the SSLT, local resident and Amery business owner Peter Henry was filing a lawsuit in Polk County Circuit Court alleging government action amending the Trail Master Plan allowing for snowmobiles and ATVs violated the state open meetings law. Additionally, according to an individual active in the silent sports community, the Pines Bach law firm out of Madison, hired by the Friends of SSLT, is preparing or considering a legal challenge that will argue the SSLT does not meet established DNR safety criteria and is too narrow in width to allow for both motorized and silent sport use on the trail.
The SSLT is a 14-mile nonmotorized, crushed limestone surface utilizing an old Soo Line Railroad corridor. The main trailhead is in Amery with a terminating trailhead just south of Dresser at Lotus Lake County Park. Polarized debate over the use of the trail extends back to 1998, when the rails were first removed.
In May 2018, Polk County appointed a seven-member trail planning subcommittee to explore future uses on the trail. That committee adopted a plan calling for allowing winter snowmobiles on the trail. On Oct. 16, 2018, the Polk County Board of Supervisors amended that master plan recommendation to also allow for all-season ATV/UTV use on the trail.
On Nov. 30, the DNR sent a four-page letter to Polk County citing a number of concerns with the SSLT planning and public participation process. The county had until Jan. 30, 2019, to adequately respond to those concerns. On Jan. 29, the county emailed the DNR an amended trail master plan. The DNR, in its letter of Feb. 6, states, “the recently submitted plan still does not meet the requirements” in an existing memorandum of understanding between the county and DNR over the use of the SSLT. Because the county failed to adequately address the DNR concerns outlined in its Nov. 30 letter, “the only uses that may be allowed on the trail are walking, bicycling, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing.” Motorized and other nonsilent sport uses will be prohibited, the letter reads, “until and unless the county completes a planning process and drafts a new plan adding such uses in accordance with the requirements in the memorandum of understanding.”
The DNR communication forced interim county Administrator Jeff Fuge to reverse a December directive allowing for snowmobile use on the SSLT. A meeting with DNR and county staff is scheduled this week.
Henry’s lawsuit alleges that the county board of supervisors, in amending the trail master plan to allow for ATV/UTV use of the trail at its regular meeting on Oct. 16, 2018, violated the state open meetings law. That law requires agenda items to be clear and precise regarding actions to be considered by a governmental body. Henry claims the Oct. 16 meeting agenda was incomplete. That agenda called for adoption of the Trail Master Plan allowing for winter snowmobiles on the trail. No notice was given that the county board would consider amendments to the trail plan allowing for ATV/UTV use of the trail.
Last month the county board of supervisors voted to begin a planning process to consider allowing for all-season ATV/UTV use on the Gandy Dancer State Recreational Trail. Polk County Corporation Counsel Malia Malone told environmental services committee members two weeks ago that it was doubtful that the DNR would consider Gandy revisions while the SSLT planning process and Master Trail Plan process is still unresolved.
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