MONROE — The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources will soon decide if ATVs will be allowed for use on the Sugar River and Badger State trails.
In the fall of 2019, the DNR held multiple open meetings about rewriting the use for the trails, and the department plans to open its Southwest Savanna Draft Regional Master Plan to public review later this summer.
The plans are revisited every 15 years, and DNR planner and Program and Policy Analyst, Savannah Ernzen is in charge. She said there will be a public comment period for a minimum of 30 days, including a public meeting not yet scheduled, once the plan is in place.
Brodhead City Council mentioned allowing ATV/UTV use on its potion of the trail in a May 11 meeting, and eight days later, Decatur board member and Director of the Brodhead Chamber of Commerce Dusty Kubly gave a presentation on the impact of allowing ATV/UTV usage on the trails. The economic impact of allowing ATVs to access Brodhead via the Badger State Trail out of Monroe and connecting with the Sugar River Trail outside of Monticello would be highly beneficial, Kubly said.
It came out of left field as residents and trail users had no idea this resolution had been in the works for five years by the Brodhead Chamber of Commerce and the Economic Development committee, which was reiterated in the Independent Register by the Director of the Chamber (Kubly). The Sugar River Trail is a state trail loved by people from all over Wisconsin and out-of-state visitors.Kassandra Huffman, Brodhead
“Towns to the west of us are flourishing with ATV/UTV use, it has impacted those areas by $18 million (in) economic spending,” Kubly is quoted in the meeting minutes.
Since 2002, there has been an average of about 62,000 people using the trails annually, with about 85,000 people using the trails in 2018. Ernzen said that the DNR does not have current usage data for either trail.
According to Kubly, “New Glarus does not want ATV use on their end of the trail,” though with the Badger State and Sugar River trails intersecting near Monticello, the ATV route wouldn’t need to include New Glarus.
At the end of the meeting, city council members Paul Huffman and Debra Fox suggested holding a public hearing on the matter. Instead, Tim Schadewaldt brought up a motion to endorse allowing ATVs on the trails. The motion was tied 3-3. Michael Lowery, a Brodhead alderperson and President of the Brodhead Chamber, voted yes, as did Paul Naramore and Schadewaldt. Paul Huffman, Erin Menzel and Fox voted against. Recently-elected mayor Troy Nyman broke the tie with a “yes” vote.
According to the DNR, cities along the trail endorsing the change does not mean the change will happen, but it is taken into consideration as public input.
“I was completely disheartened,” said Kassandra Huffman of Brodhead. “It came out of left field as residents and trail users had no idea this resolution had been in the works for five years by the Brodhead Chamber of Commerce and the Economic Development committee, which was reiterated in the Independent Register by the Director of the Chamber (Kubly). The Sugar River Trail is a state trail loved by people from all over Wisconsin and out-of-state visitors.”
After being broadsided by the news of the potential plan, Kassandra Huffman, Paul’s wife, started a Change.org petition to try and raise awareness in order to save the trails, which is used by thousands of bikers and hikers annually.
Kassandra is on the Brodhead Memorial Public Library Board of Trustees and said that due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the city’s subcommittees had not met since March.
“This item did not go to a subcommittee, so there was no opportunity for public discussion following the normal process,” she said. “The only way one would know there could have been potential for a decision on the resolution was to read the agenda for Council meetings, which do not contain detailed information.”
She said she believes the decision was rushed through the council by the ATV Club and the Chamber of Commerce “in hopes no one would notice.”
The DNR is evaluating this input, as we do with any public input.Savannah Ernzen, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources
“Brodhead is small and there are few times that the public attends meetings to give comment. Agendas for city council meetings do not include time for public comment, as comments are to be taken as items move through subcommittees,” Kassandra said.
For more than a decade the Green County ATV Club has tried to get a trail from Brodhead connected to the Cheese City Trail, which starts on Monroe’s west edge and travels through Lafayette County to Darlington and then north to Iowa County. Previous attempts to create a new trail were blocked in eastern Green County, as recently as April 2018 when Jefferson Township voted to pass a referendum by a 15-vote margin, only for the town board to turn it down.
Ernzen said the DNR performs maintenance as needed and as budget and staffing allows. That includes cutting brush four times a season, grading the trail and removing invasive species. She said the DNR also “does continuous development and maintenance through its Capital Development Program.” Community members and groups can volunteer through the DNR permitting processes to help maintain the trail. The Green County ATV Club, according to Kubly at the meeting, would help maintain the trail. He said grants may be available to help patrol the trails.
Patrolling the trails is an issue. Speeding and alcohol use have led to ATV accidents across the state and play a crucial role in fatal accidents. Thus far in Wisconsin in 2020, there have been 10 fatal ATV accidents, with 22 coming in 2019 and 27 in 2018. Twelve of the deaths were directly related to alcohol use, while another 11 were not alcohol related. The remaining 36 deaths were still pending investigation, according to the DNR. Most recently, a June 18 ATV accident on the Cheese Country Trail north of Mineral Point resulted in the hospitalization of Wayne Uskali, a 63-year-old Illinois man.
In the most recent information released by the Wisconsin Department of Transportation in 2013, there were 10 fatal cycling accidents in 2013, with nine coming from collisions with automobiles.
Ernzen said the DNR has received input from the public both in support and opposition to the proposal. “The DNR is evaluating this input, as we do with any public input,” Ernzen said, adding that the petition “is part of the input we’ve received.”
Ernzen said the other factors the DNR takes into account are “impacts on existing users, safety, landscape suitability and environmental impacts, economic impacts, infrastructure development costs, federal land interests,” and existing state statutes, regulations, restrictions and other permitted uses.
Southwest Savanna Ecological Landscape
The department is initiating a regional master planning process for the Southwest Savanna region. The region includes state parks, state trails, state natural areas, fish and wildlife areas, and Southwest Grassland and Stream Conservation Area. The landscape covers all of Lafayette County, and portions of Grant, Green, Iowa, and Dane counties. It contains a variety of notable ecological resources including the Grant and Rattlesnake Rivers, Little Platte River and Tributaries, Pecatonica River and Grasslands, Blue Mound Blanchardville Prairie and Savanna, and Hardscrabble Prairie.
Yellowstone Lake, New Glarus Woods, and Belmont Mound state parks are all included in this planning effort.
The master planning process takes both ecological and recreation considerations into account. The two may seem distinct, but they are closely connected: outdoor recreation opportunities on a property are shaped by the property’s ecological characteristics. Thus, the ecological information presented here influences both resource management planning and recreation planning on DNR properties.
Southwest Savanna contains public lands which provide abundant recreation opportunities with some of the most popular being surface trail bicycling, swimming, and hiking, walking or running on trails. The Southwest Savanna also contains nine Class I waters, 78 Class II waters, and four Class III waters. (Wisconsin’s trout streams are categorized into three classifications. Class I trout streams are the highest quality, while Class III are the lowest.) There are fourteen areas in the landscape that warrant high protection or restoration consideration during the development of the regional master plan, known as primary sites.
— Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources
The petition to protect the trail
Kassandra Huffman’s late May petition spread like wildfire once it hit social media. Many of those that signed commented that it’s not just the quietness of the trail that will be lost, but the environmental and safety impact as well.
“We live right next to the trail in town and see how many people love the trail for biking and walking and families and kids,” said Lance Smith of Monroe, "I would hate to see that all replaced with UTVs. I have nothing against UTVs, but they can ride on the street and to Mineral Point and other branches off that one. I would rather that both trails be kept to bikes and non-motorized vehicles.”
Scott Mosher, Monroe High School track and field coach, said he’s not necessarily opposed to ATV/UTV use on the trail, as he was unsure how often he’d come across them while out for a run.
“As long as everyone is aware of their surroundings,” said Mosher, who admitted that getting hit by dust and gravel spit up from tires of four-wheelers is painful.
We live right next to the trail in town and see how many people love the trail for biking and walking and families and kids. I would hate to see that all replaced with UTVs. I have nothing against UTVs, but they can ride on the street and to Mineral Point and other branches off that one. I would rather that both trails be kept to bikes and non-motorized vehicles.Lance Smith, Monroe
The Huffmans live just two blocks from the Sugar River Trail and use it “3-4 times a week.”
“I started the petition as a way to inform the public of the resolution. I expected maybe a few hundred signatures,” Kassandra Huffman said. The petition now has more than 11,000 signatures and hundreds of comments.
The trails were built after local railroads went out of service. The Sugar River Trail bookends in Brodhead and New Glarus, with Albany and Monticello following along the line. The Badger State Trail connects Monroe to Monticello, Belleville and Madison to the north, and continues south of the Wisconsin-Illinois Border to Freeport in a stretch known as the “Jane Addams Trail.” Many users cite the peaceful, quiet tranquility of the local nature along the trails as a key reason to use the trails.
“I am overwhelmed by the number of people who support and love these trails. I personally know people who are neutral, however, most are against ATVs on the trails,” Kassandra Huffman said.
-This story has been updated from a previous version.