The first new master plan in nearly 30 years for the popular 92-mile-long Lower Wisconsin State Riverway calls for improved boat landings, more options for hiking and camping and steps to protect water and land.
Conservation groups say a recommendation for a shooting range near the river should be removed, and they want more restrictions on logging, and an expansion of the project’s boundaries to protect more land from development and reduce farm pollution that is tainting water and harming fish.
The state Department of Natural Resources is incorporating several of the comments into a revised plan, but budget restrictions limit possible land acquisition, DNR planner Ann Freiwald said.
“We’re not in a position to expand our project boundaries in the way some of the groups would like,” Freiwald said. “This is a property master plan, which lives within the world of the larger agency, which lives within the world of the budget, which lives within the world of politics.”
Matt Krueger of the River Alliance of Wisconsin said in written comments submitted to DNR planners that it was crucial to obtain land and easements to prevent pollution from surrounding farms.
“We realize the current political leadership in Wisconsin would not look favorably upon this suggestion, but as this is a 15-year plan, future administrations may well support this idea,” Krueger said.
Gov. Scott Walker and his fellow Republicans who control the Legislature in 2013 gave the DNR four years to sell 10,000 acres of land to help pay down debts, and last year sharply cut money for purchases.
Krueger and others said another growing problem was the spread of aquatic invasive species that push out native plants and animals and upset the river’s ecological balance. The DNR should add wash stations to help boaters remove non-native organisms from boats and equipment, and enforcement activity should be stepped up, Krueger said.
Freiwald said the DNR was incorporating the alliance’s recommendation for more signs reminding boaters of rules.
The scenic riverway was created by a 1989 state law to protect one of the longest free-flowing lengths of river in the Midwest from development and logging that could mar the miles of soaring bluffs, wooded shoreland and sandy islands that draw tens of thousands of boaters and other visitors to the broad, powerful waterway each year.
“It is just a beautiful, aesthetically pleasing place,” said Matt Seguin, who manages DNR properties within the riverway. “You don’t have the development along the shoreline — just a half-hour from Madison you have that ‘Up North’ feeling.”
Mark Cupp, executive director of the independent Lower Wisconsin State Riverway Board, said many people, including landowners, were skeptical when the law was passed, but most have seen the benefits.
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The board controls permits for development activities in about 95,000 publicly and privately owned acres along the river from Prairie du Sac to the Mississippi River.
The original master plan was approved the year before the law passed. The new draft plan has been in the works for about three years, Freiwald said. It includes provisions aimed at protecting water quality, along with native plants and animals.
Dave Marshall, a retired DNR scientist, has conducted studies in recent years showing backwater sections of river called sloughs that once were fed by clean groundwater are now receiving water from the aquifer carrying farm nitrates that are harmful to fish.
The new master plan should place more emphasis on water quality and environmental protection, said Marshall, who is a member of the Friends of the Lower Wisconsin Riverway.
The draft master plan calls for improvements to state recreational offerings, including a shooting range. Three possible sites are identified in the plan.
Friends of the Lower Wisconsin Riverway was among the groups that objected to the shooting range, saying there was no evidence of any public demand for a range that couldn’t be accommodated by the private sector.
Placing a range close to the river would risk loud firearms reports that could disrupt wildlife and interfere with people’s enjoyment of the river area, Marshall said.
Marshall said shooting ranges are difficult to stop or control because of a 2014 state law, supported by the National Rifle Association, that broadened the exemptions for ranges from local zoning requirements and civil liability over complaints about noise.
Freiwald said the shooting range proposal is part of an agency effort to reduce target shooting in wildlife areas.
The plan recommends replacing a state boat launch near Boscobel with a new one at a better site, and adding pavement, picnic amenities and toilets at other landings.
Semi-primitive campsites would be added in two locations for use by boaters when high water limits camping on sandbars or along the shore.
Several stretches of hiking and snowmobile trails would be added as building blocks toward a longer-term goal of a footpath running the length of the riverway.