After a closed session discussion Feb. 19, the Polk County Board rescinded master plans for the Stower Seven Lakes and Cattail state trails.
Submitted to the Department of Natural Resources in October 2018, the Stower’s plan would have expanded use to allow motorized vehicles year round. The addition of use by ATVs and UTVs was unexpected at the time, as a trail-planning subcommittee had recommended expanding use only to snowmobiles and horses.
After some back and forth with the DNR and confusion over whether the Stower would open to snowmobiles this winter, the DNR put an end to motorized use, at least temporarily, with a Feb. 6 letter.
“Trapping, hunting, equestrian and motorized uses must continue to be prohibited on the trail until and unless the county completes a planning process and drafts a new plan adding such uses in accordance with the requirements in the MOU,” Ben Bergey, Bureau Director of the Wisconsin State Park System, wrote in the letter to Polk County’s current land information director, Steve Geiger.
County staff are now working to update the plans with guidance from the DNR.
In addition to pushback from the DNR, the county faces two lawsuits: one from the Friends of the Stower Seven Lakes State Trail and another from Amery resident Peter Henry, who alleges the board violated open meeting law when it approved the Stower trail plan Oct. 16, 2018.
Henry addressed the board at its Feb. 19 meeting, ultimately asking them to start the trail planning process over from the beginning.
The citizen subcommittee appointed by Environmental Services Committee, he said, “ignored many highly qualified and professional applicants who included detailed resumes and areas of expertise highly relevant to the work of the committee.”
Instead, Henry asserted, committee members chose people they knew personally, without the professional qualifications.
He reiterated his belief that the Polk County Board violated Wisconsin law in October “by acting on controversial matters amending a citizen master plan that had been worked on for three months in order to conform with NR44.”
He continued: “Polk County has wasted staff time, public energy and considerable expense pursing an agenda that is detrimental to tourism, Polk County’s environment, its residents’ health and the maintenance of the social fabric of this community.
“Therefore, let’s throw out 75-18, throw out the work of the citizen subcommittee, call the many hours of work of Polk County staff a complete and total loss, and start this process all over again, admitting as a first principle that with three state recreational trails in Polk County, there needs to be a fair, equitable and reasonable access for all citizens in all types of activities.”
Citizen proposes referendum
Henry was not the only one to speak before the board on the issue of whether to motorize the trail. Others asked the board to open the Stower to motors. One of them, Rick McGuiggan, suggested the county bring the issue to vote via referendum.
“It would let you guys off the hook,” he said. “Let the residents of Polk County vote on what they want to see.”