Silent Sports Victory

Last week the Natural Resources Board rejected a proposal that would have opened more parts of state parks, forests and other lands to motorized recreational vehicles, like ATV’s.

It was a modest victory for silent sports enthusiasts, including hikers, skiers and cyclists.

To explain the chain of events we have to go back a few years to when the legislature ordered the Department of Natural Resources to inventory its roads, especially those in state forests, with a view toward identifying more places where people could ride all terrain vehicles, sport utility vehicles and the like.

In response and to its credit, the DNR created a broad based visioning effort called the Recreational Opportunities Analysis. The Bike Fed has a seat on the oversight committee for the ROA. The idea was to get a sense of the current and future demand for various recreational pursuits on public lands, not just motor sports.

The result has been a set of regional goals that are designed to inform individual property master plans as they are revised.

This brings us to the issue at hand. Since 1996, the department has had a rule, called “NR 44,” that governs master planning. The rule states, among other things, that uses that might conflict should be kept separate as much as possible. So, for example, if a property is planned for a quiet, primitive hiking and camping experience, ATV’s and snowmobiles should be kept far enough away to avoid the intrusion of noise, fumes and dust that they can generate.

The issue before the Natural Resources Board last week was a proposal to suspend those use separation requirements in NR 44 for plan updates on properties with plans written before 1996. That may sound like a narrow exception, but it accounts for over half of the department’s properties — 182.

The argument on behalf of this change was that it would help streamline the planning process and, in fact, way too many properties have plans that are more than two decades old.

But silent sports groups, including the Bike Fed, opposed this change on the grounds that whatever efficiencies might be created by dropping the requirement would be far outweighed by the degradation in the experience for those of us who want to experience the quiet enjoyment of the outdoors.

Last Wednesday, and somewhat to our surprise, the board backed down and did not accept the rule change. Now, in truth, the reasons they gave during their discussion amounted to something less than a robust endorsement of silent sports. Basically, they realized that the existing rule allows them to suspend these use separation requirements on a case by case basis.

But this is still an important victory because it means that in any given case the board will have to vote specifically to suspend the rule for that property. And that’s significant because, given human nature, it’s often difficult to rally people for an abstract concept (like suspending a portion of an obscure administrative rule) but it’s much easier to get people to show up when a specific property they love is threatened with a specific action.

Finally, it’s important to point out that the Bike Fed does not oppose motor sports recreation. There is enough room out there for everyone to enjoy their activity. But at the same time it’s just acknowledging reality to note that internal combustion engines make noise, create odors and can kick up dust that can impact others’ experience while silent sports are pretty much just that: silent.

And while this rule change did not directly address the growing controversies around the state where ATV riders are trying to gain more access to hiking and biking trails, its rejection amounts to a step in the right direction and at least a tentative statement in favor of silent sports.

It’s a modest victory, but not an insignificant one. We’ll take it.



About Dave Cieslewicz, Director Emeritus

Dave Cieslewicz served two terms as mayor of Madison where he set the city on a path for Platinum status as one of the best biking cities in North America. Before that he started his own nonprofit, 1000 Friends of Wisconsin, which focuses on land use and transportation policy. He has been an adjunct professor at the UW Madison's Department of Urban and Regional Planning where he teaches a class called Bikes, Pedestrians and Cities. He pronounces his name chess LEV ich, but nobody else does.

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