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Over two and a half years ago, the Bike Fed wrote an article detailing the 16+ year saga over control and use of the Stower Seven Lakes Trail. Around that time, the Friends of the Stower Seven Lakes State Trail filed a lawsuit against Polk County and the Department of Natural Resources. Read on to learn more about a recent major decision in the case. 

In January of 2021, Friends of the Stower Seven Lakes State Trail, led by then President Brook Waalen, filed a lawsuit against Polk County and the Department of Natural Resources after the government entities agreed to amend a 2019 master plan for the trail to allow winter snowmobilers and horseback riders, with pedestrians and cross-country skiers to be accommodated elsewhere. This decision went against all precedent and previous rulings that had made the Stower Seven Lakes Trail a long-standing non-motorized trail. 

“Share where you can but make sure to separate disparate users.” 

Friends of Stower Seven Lakes Representative, Brook Waalen 

While allowing all types of trail users, both motorized and non-motorized, sounds reasonable as long as all trail-users are accommodated, hikers, cyclists and cross-country skiers were kicked off the state trail and onto a short alternative route that weaves through wetland properties adjacent to the Stower Seven Lakes Trail and shared many areas where the trails crossed paths. This “alternative route” was quickly deemed unsustainable and unsafe by the vast majority of trail users, as it contains steep embankments and often left users trudging through swampy waters if the route was not frozen over. What’s more – motorized trail users already had, and will continue to have, access to routes running parallel to the Stower Seven Lakes State Trail. 

Community members have always been open to sharing the Stower Seven Lakes State Trail if it made sense to do so. The problem with allowing snowmobilers and horseback riders on the trail is one of safety and one of accessibility. It isn’t often that trails in Wisconsin can safely accommodate both motorized and non-motorized users except on an occasional seasonal basis, and the Stower Seven Lakes Trail is certainly no exception. The surrounding area of the state trail, near Amery in Polk County, has a large population of “silent sports” trail users including cyclists, snowshoers, hikers, and cross-country skiers. These activities don’t mix with horses and snowmobiles no matter the season, as horses can be easily spooked by other trail users, and winter sports trail users would have to be wary of fast moving snowmobiles. Additionally, without the 14-mile trail to walk, bike, hike, ski, and snowshoe on, the trail options accessible for silent sports users in the area become few and far between, and, as previously mentioned, there are numerous alternative options for motorized trail users in the area. This change left silent sports enthusiasts feeling underserved and unsafe without a maintained, non-motorized route to travel the area that the state trail covers. 

After Nearly 3 Years in Court, a Decision is Reached 

Finally, a court decision on the Friends of Stower Seven Lakes State Trail lawsuit was made this summer. Acting Polk County Circuit Judge Edward Vlack ruled that Polk County’s decision to allow snowmobiles and horses on the Stower Seven Lakes State Trail was not defensible. He reversed the County’s decision, thereby once again prohibiting snowmobiles and horses from the trail. In his 268-page decision, Judge Vlack further concluded that the County’s actions conflicted with its mandate to “provide recreational opportunities that complement present trail opportunities and provide recreational opportunities that are underrepresented in the Polk County Trail system.” 

“This is a victory for everyone who uses trails and the communities who depend on them. Everyone deserves a safe place to connect with nature.” 

Friends of Stower Seven Lakes Representative, Brook Waalen

Issues surrounding the control, management, and maintenance of state trails stem from Memorandums of Understanding agreements, or MOUs. A fairly commonplace legal agreement, MOUs give local governments the authority to address trail issues as they arise, but they also complicate decision making as MOUs are often vague regarding the alteration of master plans, control, and use of certain state trails. The Stower Seven Lakes State Trail is one of the most egregious examples of these complications, and the Bike Fed is extremely thankful for all of the passionate people involved with Friends of the Stower Seven Lakes State Trail who worked hard to reach this outcome. We at the Bike Fed could not achieve all we do without the help of local volunteers, friends of trail groups, and enthusiastic trail users. Polk County recently determined that they would like to appeal the latest court decision, but the Bike Fed and Friends of Stower Seven Lakes Trail are hopeful the Stower saga is coming to an end soon. 

Interested in diving deeper into the history of the Stower Seven Lakes State Trail? Please visit the Friends of Stower Seven Lakes State Trail Facebook page to learn more. Better yet: get out and ride this beautiful trail!