By now, everyone has pretty much had their say about the future of the Sauk Prairie Recreation Area on the southern border of Devil’s Lake State Park. If you haven’t done so yet, let the Wisconsin DNR know how you feel, by heading over to the DNR website and filling out the survey. You have until September 25th.
Personally I’m not a member of the DNR, or any local conservation group for that matter. I was simply born and raised here. I can tell you that at one time we were all told that Badger would someday become a restored prairie where bison would again roam. (Of course I’m from the generation that was promised jetpacks and flying cars as well!) Still, it was not hard to imagine. Heck, the fence was already in place to keep those pesky bison from roaming too far. In fact in combination with Devil’s Lake State Park and other lands, what we were really talking about could have been a smaller version of Yellowstone right here in the midwest. How appropriate in a place where the names of Aldo Leopold and John Muir are bandied about so often with a sense of local pride!? It seemed so obvious, so simple and so good for the local economy, what could go wrong. . ?
Yeah, well, that’s how it goes. The fact is, that here we are many, many, many years later debating motorbikes and rockets on a small 3,400 acre part of the land now open to the public. (Open with what can only be described as a bizarre public access route.) So, where do we go from here?
I agree that the current suggestions of motorbikes, rockets and off-leash dogs are not compatible with the originally promised, low-impact, natural area. I’m certainly in the conservation corner on this. However, the bigger issue, the “brass tacks” as they say, are mired in an obvious reality. I suggest that the Wisconsin DNR has neither the staff nor the budget to monitor, patrol or protect the property from abuse. Not now, not any time soon. This is the overriding issue that we all have to face when talking about the SPRA. With the parks now pondering how to fund themselves, things will only get worse for the foreseeable future and frankly we’re not doing too well now.
We certainly can’t expect Devil’s Lake State Park to further stretch their staff to cover the SPRA when they can’t control off-leash dogs within the current property boundaries (Just hike the Uplands/Steinke Basin Trail on any weekend.). And that’s just one issue at our popular park. Parking is woefully inadequate. New “cattle” trails and erosion damage are showing up everywhere near the bluff trails and overlooks. Memorial benches are falling over, black top trails are crumbling and eroding. The sheer volume of visitors has created wide swaths of compressed, dead earth along the East bluff trail. Encroaching brush is forcing folks to walk off and around on the West. Invasives are everywhere. Even simply pruning along south shore road isn’t being done. This in the park that makes the most money now! These are good people, but they are overwhelmed and under supported for reasons I can’t even guess at. Are these folks going to find the time to patrol and care for another 3,400 acres with loose dogs and motorbikes? Not a chance.
What’s more, we are all complaining about the destruction at Pewit’s Nest State Natural Area, another local treasure. This was not a problem we didn’t see coming, it’s not new or a surprise. Well, it shouldn’t have been anyway. It simply has not been managed well or responded to in any sort of timely fashion. The damage, as they say, is done. It’s still being done today. Who will cover the needed cost of building proper trails and railings at Pewit’s? Who will pay for more patrols?
Also take a look at Parfrey’s Glen SNA since the floods a few years back. Again, we all know people are walking all over the land. Everything Wisconsin’s first state natural area was meant to protect is now being crushed under foot because there has been no real public use plan since the floods and not enough staff to patrol it at the proper times. It’s wonderful that we got a restoration burn at Parfrey’s, but if we don’t build proper trails through the gorge itself and can’t keep hikers on the designated trails we do provide, the burn and other efforts will have been a waste.
I feel that if we take a pragmatic view, we know that if we allow off-leash dogs, motorbikes and the like in the Sauk Prairie Recreation Area, we’ll get the same overuse and abuse and no way to control it. The SPRA does not exist in a bubble. The number one reason to keep the SPRA lands “low-impact” is because at this point in time, given what we know from other local examples, we simply can’t envision a way that the SPRA can realistically be protected or maintained.
Let It Heal
So what should happen to the land? What plan makes sense? Well, I agree in general with the conservation folks. This land is tired. It’s worn out. It needs to recover. I believe our first focus should be on restoration. I’m not a person who believes that we need to return every foot to historic prairie, but I do want to see a healthy environment and a refuge for native wildlife. We need to cut, we need to burn, and we need to plant and renew the land before we move forward. This alone will take time, manpower and money that we’ll be hard pressed to find as it is.
While we work to restore the land, it’s logical that low impact uses such as hiking, biking, birdwatching, etc. are allowed within the SPRA. That said, I would wait on any other construction for a recovery period of up to 20 years. Yep, I know that won’t happen. It should. In that time, we would keep up a few current roadways for automobile, bicycle & equestrian traffic. This is meant to allow access, but keep our “footprint” as light on the land as possible during an adequate recovery phase. As any artist will tell you, you have to prepare the canvas before you begin to paint. We should be taking this time of budgetary uncertainty to prepare the canvas.
While I’d love to walk my dogs in the Sauk Prairie Recreation Area, I would support a no pet policy until such time as reasonable law enforcement/management could be put in place. Otherwise we will have abusers causing issues with restoration projects and with the local wildlife. It’s sad that people don’t follow rules because it screws it up for the rest of us, but there it is. No pets during the “recovery phase”. (An off-leash dog training area is already available at nearby Pine Island.)
In The End
With the land restored and down the road a bit, I can imagine a vast extension of Devil’s Lake State Park. We need it. There’s a ton of people coming here each year and they need new opportunities. As an outdoor recreation hotspot, we need to meet our visitors needs. For the most part, I’m totally O.K. with the current master plan with the few exceptions I’ve mentioned. But I would modify or add a couple of things.
First, this new Sauk Prairie Recreation Area could share an interpretation center with Devil’s Lake. This would cut down on duplication. Devil’s Lake needs a new building, the SPRA needs a building.. just combine the project.
The proposed Great Sauk Trail is a must. Devil’s Lake State Park lacks any sort of family friendly biking opportunity. I would propose a paved loop for accessibility as well.
Lastly, what I personally don’t see in the master plan, is a concept of scale that looks at the SPRA & Devil’s Lake as one unit and what that could allow. With this land we could create new IAT style hiking trail that could run from the southern border of the SPRA to the northern border of Devil’s Lake State Park. This would offer a truly unique day hiking opportunity for central Wisconsin, a single day sampling of great thru-trails around the country. Along with this we could offer a number of “back-country style” hike in/bike in, campsites. This would offer a perfect “starter” or “weekend” adventure opportunity unique to the area.
And yes, we should re-introduce a small herd of bison. Even if it’s only within one section. If it can be done at Sandhill Wildlife Area, it can be done here as well.
In the end the people in power need to be thinking more Necedah or Sandhill and less Bong when it comes to the Sauk Prairie Recreation Area. The Baraboo Hills and the prairies beyond, this “Last Great Place” that the DNR itself says needs to be protected and saved is not the right place for motor sports, rockets and dog parks.
What’s Present is Prologue.
If we do this right, the Sauk Prairie Recreation Area will be totally amazing. In conjunction with Devil’s Lake State Park and other properties, we could still have something like our own little Yellowstone right here in central Wisconsin. It will be a major boost to the local economy and yes, we’ll be protecting some important habitat in an ever-shrinking world. But until then, let’s not forget the realities.We’re not doing so well protecting what we have right here, right now. We can’t put more burden on the same overwhelmed folks. We don’t know where the money to do more will ultimately come from. This a whole ideological argument I’m not looking to have here. However, if we can’t realistically manage this new public land, we need to be pretty limited in our offerings and simply protect & restore this future asset until we can do it right.
– Of course, when I get all opinionated I want to remind you that this website and my opinion are mine and are not associated with the Wisconsin DNR in any way.