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DNR: “Off Road Motorcycles and Helicopters are Low Impact”

A hearing was held in the Baraboo Courthouse on Monday, February 27th, in the court of Judge Guy Reynolds.  Almost 100 citizens were there to observe the hearing. The hearing was conducted for the Alliance and the DNR to present arguments for–and against– a “stay” on the high impact activities that were included in DNR’s final Master Plan for the Sauk Prairie State Recreation Area approved by the Natural Resources Board on December 14th.

Following the approval of the Master Plan, the Alliance filed lawsuits in Sauk County Circuit Court and in federal court challenging the Plan, and also requested a “stay” or temporary  injunction against only those activities that may result in environmental damage.  Those activities include:  off-road motorcycles, military helicopter training and year-round dog training with the discharge of firearms.

Perkins Coie attorney Brian Potts represented the Alliance, while the DNR was represented by Assistant Attorney General Emily Ertel (not pictured).  Attorney Potts started with a strong argument insisting that DNR is required to complete a thorough Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) under the Wisconsin Environmental Policy Act (WEPA).  He showed samples of EISes from other projects, documents that are often hundreds of pages long.  In contrast, Potts argued, DNR’s EIS for the Badger property was only a few dozen pages, and therefore, fully inadequate for the requisite thorough review of alternatives and potential environmental damage that may result from the approved high impact activities.  Potts went on to demonstrate, using enlarged maps of the property, some inconsistencies in DNR’s various planning documents that show conflicts of uses.  One example is off-road motorcycle trails that lie within sensitive grassland and shrubland breeding bird areas, where DNR has not addressed the potential impacts by motorcycles.

A study commissioned by the Alliance several years ago to address the potential impacts of a proposed shooting range at Badger was brought into the discussion.  The study concluded that nesting grassland birds could be disrupted by the discharge of firearms during the breeding season, yet, as the judge pointed out, the dog training proposed in the south of the property that involves the discharge of firearms could be undertaken all year long.  DNR has no comparable study to refute or support such impacts of the dog training activities.  Judge Reynolds asked whether horses and their riders, too, might be impacted by the gun/dog training.  Potts, who grew up on a horse farm, indicated that, while some horses may be accustomed to the discharge of firearms, others may spook.

A telling moment in the hearing was when DNR’s attorney proclaimed that “off-road motorcycles and helicopter training are low impact activities,” a truly astonishing proclamation.  DNR has never acknowledged that these may represent high impact activities, but rather argues that the Alliance has not defined what it means by high impact uses.  DNR provided no new arguments in support of their case, but rather repeated everything they included in their response to the Alliance’s brief.

Judge Reynolds will share his final decision in a public hearing on Wednesday morning, March 15th, at 11:00am, in the Baraboo Courthouse.   The public is welcome to attend.

This is an important decision for the Alliance.  If the judge decides in our favor and issues a stay of the high impact activities, this not only stops those potentially harmful activities this spring but also is a message that the judge finds our arguments have merit, and may be an indication that we could prevail as the lawsuit progresses over the next year or more.

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