Stower Seven Lakes State Trail saga continues

A 16-year fight over keeping a state trail in northwest Wisconsin nonmotorized entered a new chapter this spring.

The Friends of the Stower Seven Lakes State Trail filed suit in January against Polk County and the Department of Natural Resources after the government entities last December 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.

In March, attorneys for the friends group sought a restraining order against the county permitting snowmobilers and equestrians on the trail until the amended plan can be evaluated by the courts in Polk and Dane counties. As of press time, a St. Croix County Circuit judge had not issued a ruling on the requested restraining order.

Snowmobilers celebrated their pending, long-sought access to the trail, according to local press reports. But current users and owners of property along the trail believe their concerns over noise, speed and safety continue to go unheeded.

“The plan says this is the most dangerous option for everybody involved.”

Friends group president Brook Waalen says the “so-called compromise” of the amended master plan for the Stower trail will give snowmobilers and horseback riders access to the full 14-mile trail while shunting pedestrians onto a short alternative route he has derisively dubbed “Swamp Walk.” The narrow corridor with steep embankments will still require people on foot to cross the main trail, possibly putting them in the path of snowmobilers.

“The plan says this is the most dangerous option for everybody involved,” Waalen says. “It’s insanity.”

Many of Wisconsin’s state trails are maintained by local governments under agreements called memorandums of understanding (MOUs). These legal arrangements give local officials the authority to address trail issues as they come up, but they also complicate decisionmaking over who can use particular trails.

The history of the Stower Seven Lakes State Trail is a particularly fraught example.

In 2003, the state purchased the railway corridor — extending 14 miles between the small communities Amery and Dresser—and the following year entered a MOU with Polk County to maintain it.

A map of the Seven Lakes Trail with close-ups of Nye, Wanderoos, Deronda, and Amery.

A master plan for the trail was drafted soon thereafter, but it called for separate and parallel trails for motorized and nonmotorized users. Due to the narrow corridor through an abundance of wetlands, development of the plan was deemed too costly to be feasibly developed. In 2008, a judge ordered the DNR to prohibit motorized vehicles on the trail.

Since the trail opened in 2010, people have enjoyed walking, running, snowshoeing, bicycling and cross-country skiing there without fear of encountering horses, ATVs or snowmobiles.

Two years after the county and DNR forged a cooperative easement for the trail in 2018, the county proposed allowing snowmobiles and equestrians on it. The county plan acknowledged that the introduction of snowmobiles would displace skiers and pedestrians, and engine noise would bother adjacent property owners.

The plan further noted “significant safety challenges” posed by equestrians whose horses can be spooked by quiet and fast moving bicyclists. DNR staff created a matrix which concluded the county plan was unsafe for all trail users and made the county aware of the deficiencies of its proposed master plan.

Last December, county and DNR staff met and drafted an amendment to the plan allowing snowmobiles on the trail from December through March, conditions permitting, and equestrian use from October to the Friday before gun deer season.

To mitigate user conflicts, the county agreed to construct a three-quarter mile “off-trail, rustic, winter-use pedestrian trail” east from the Amery trailhead that would “traverse several wetlands that will be accessible when frozen.” The amended plan also suggested expanding cross-country ski trails at DD Kennedy County Park and Ahlgren Wildlife Preserve, the terrain of which is challenging to novice skiers.

Motorsport enthusiasts already have ample trail-riding opportunities in northwest Wisconsin. On private land, snowmobilers have two trails parallel to the Stower. And the Cattail State Trail, which shares the same corridor as the Stower, extends the 18 miles from Amery to Almena and is open to year-round ATVing.

“We’ve got enough public land in this state to knit together some high-quality trail experiences for a bunch of different user groups,” Waalen argues, adding that trail master plans need to focus on minimizing user conflicts.

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