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Blue Mound State Park

A judge has ruled that the DNR disregarded its own rules when it approved snowmobiling in Blue Mound State Park.

A judge has thrown out the state’s controversial decision to add a snowmobile trail to a state park known for silent sports such as cross-country skiing.

The Department of Natural Resources violated its own rules when it approved snowmobiling at Blue Mound State Park, Dane County Circuit Judge Valerie Bailey-Rihn ruled Tuesday.

In her ruling, Bailey-Rihn said she doesn’t know if snowmobiling should be allowed in the park, but state administrative rules require the department to plan park features using a classification system that identifiies compatible uses, and the DNR didn’t do that.

“When agencies abandon their own procedures and argue that they do not apply to their actions, they act outside their discretion,” Bailey-Rihn wrote in her decision in a lawsuit filed in November.

The lawsuit was filed by Madison attorney Christa Westerberg on behalf of former park superintendent Karl Heil and village of Blue Mounds resident Kenneth Wade.

Heil said it disheartened him to sue the agency he served for 30 years, but he felt forced to do so after the department’s 2016 decision to add a snowmobile trail to the park plan.

“From the very beginning it was apparent to me that the DNR’s primary and unwavering goal of this Master Plan Amendment was to appease the snowmobile lobby by creating this costly, environmentally destructive, unneeded snowmobile trail,” Heil said in a statement.

Heil said the DNR’s move undermined “years of goodwill, huge monetary contributions, and untold volunteer hours provided to the park by the silent sports community and others.”

DNR spokesman Jim Dick said the department was reviewing the ruling Wednesday and had no comment. Work hasn’t begun on the snowmobile trail, he said.

The judge’s decision appears to allow the DNR to add a snowmobile trail to the park if it can do so in a way consistent with its rules.

But Wade said a trail is unnecessary because snowmobiles already can cross through the park on town roads. He said the approved trail plan would have created significant problems.

“These included noise impacts in a park dominated by silent sport activity, clearcutting the trail through sensitive ecological areas and moving the existing ski trails to include an unsafe road crossing,” Wade said.

Wade added that it was unfortunate that citizens needed to take legal action to ensure that the DNR followed the law.

It’s the second time courts have found against the decision to add the snowmobile trail.

On June 1, Dane County Circuit Judge John Markson ruled in a separate lawsuit that the DNR’s policy board, the Natural Resources Board, violated the open meetings act when it approved a snowmobile trail one day after an unannounced January 2016 dinner session where DNR officials lobbied board members in private.

More than 200 people had submitted public comments against the trail, with only 12 in favor, said the open meetings lawsuit, also filed by Heil and Wade.

The lawsuit cited an email from DNR land division administrator Sanjay Olson laying out a strategy for staff members to counter public opposition to the snowmobile trail.

“We want to re-brief as 215 comments came in, in opposition to the snomo trail,” Olson wrote. “I feel Preston/ Terry/ Gary understand this — but we want to answer any questions they have — as well and try to get in front of the others not yet briefed.”

After the open meetings ruling, DNR administrators resubmitted the plan and the NRB approved it. The NRB stopped scheduling dinner meetings for a time but has resumed the practice with the addition of providing public notice.

“From the very beginning it was apparent to me that the DNR’s primary and unwavering goal …was to appease the snowmobile lobby …” Karl Heil, former superintendent of Blue Mound State Park

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Steven Verburg is a reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal covering state politics with a focus on science and the environment as well as military and veterans issues.