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Curt Meine: Stick with low-impact recreation at SPRA
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Curt Meine: Stick with low-impact recreation at SPRA

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SAUK CITY — The people of Wisconsin received a rare gift a decade ago: 3,400 acres of land between Devil’s Lake State Park and the Wisconsin River.

Designated the Sauk Prairie Recreation Area (SPRA), these lands are part of the former Badger Army Ammunition Plant. The landscape embraces a remarkable array of natural and cultural assets, including forest, savanna and open grassland that is home to imperiled birds. It includes Native American landmarks, farmsteads sacrificed to serve the cause of World War II, and remnants of the Army’s half-century of production.

Now we have come to another defining moment in the history of this rich place. The people of Wisconsin get to decide what we will do with this gift. For the last three years the state Department of Natural Resources has been planning the SPRA’s future and recently released its draft master plan and environmental impact statement.

The plan, to its credit, gives high priority to extensive restoration of the SPRA’s prairies, savannas, woodlands and wetlands. It recognizes the great potential for conservation agriculture and for partnering (especially with the Dairy Forage Research Center and the Ho-Chunk Nation) to realize that potential.

The plan does excellent work in highlighting the educational opportunities inherent in the area’s history and landscape. To make the most of these cultural values, the DNR again will need to work in close partnership with its neighbors. The plan also places welcome emphasis on opportunities for historical, agricultural and scientific research at the site — an emphasis lacking in earlier stages of planning.

Not surprisingly, the draft plan focuses largely on recreation. There is much to commend in the plan, especially its provisions for a visitor’s center, interpretive sites, hiking and biking trails, wildlife watching, picnic areas, and hunting and fishing opportunities.

But the plan includes recreational activities incompatible with the other uses. Earlier proposals for an ATV track and a long-range rifle range have fortunately been dropped, but the current draft includes dual-sport motorcycles, model rocketry, “special events,” and other loud, high-impact and disruptive uses.

In 2001, a committee I served on that studied how to reuse the area struggled with the question of how to accommodate various recreational interests. Large as the former ammo plant’s footprint is, the land cannot be all things to all people. The committee had to make compromises.

We came to understand that low-impact and mutually compatible activities would best serve all the landowners’ needs and the overall vision. The DNR made its commitment to those uses in its agreement with the National Park Service and in its own analysis of the property.

Why the draft plan includes inappropriate activities — especially with inadequate analysis of potential short- and long-term environmental impacts, and with concerns about the DNR’s enforcement capacity statewide — is a mystery.

In its final report, the Badger Reuse Committee I served on defined many shared values. But none was more important that this: that future uses should “contribute to the reconciliation and resolution of past conflicts.” Let that be the guide to all decisions we make together about the gift we have received.

Meine, who lives in Sauk County, is a founding member of the Sauk Prairie Conservation Alliance and served on the Badger Reuse Committee: For more information: dnr.wi.gov.

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