Restoration work (copy)

Sauk Prairie Conservation Alliance members lay out plans to restore a section of the Sauk Prairie Recreation Area to its pre-1840s condition in March. The group will appeal a federal court's decision next month to allow high-impact recreation in the area until its lawsuits challenging state and federal agencies' management of the land are settled. 

News Republic file photo

A local conservation group is appealing a federal judge’s decision to allow “high-impact” recreation at the Sauk Prairie Recreation Area while its lawsuits challenging state and federal agencies’ management of the property are pending.

Sauk Prairie Conservation Alliance attorneys will argue before the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago on Nov. 9 that off-road motorcycle racing, dog training with firearms, and Army helicopter training exercises could cause irreparable harm to the state-owned property.

The group will ask the three-judge panel to restrict such activities until its lawsuits challenging state and federal agencies’ management of the site are settled next spring.

“We think the district judge was wrong not to issue the injunction under the legal standards that apply,” said SPCA attorney Brian Potts. “Our argument shows fairly conclusively that we will prevail on the merits, and that there will be irreparable harm.”

The property in question was taken by the federal government for construction of a propellant plant during World War II. After the Badger Army Ammunition Plant was decommissioned in 1997, the U.S. General Services Administration oversaw dividing of the 7,300-acre property between several stakeholders. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources claimed more than 3,000 acres for the Sauk Prairie Recreation Area in 2011 through the National Parks Service.

The property is located immediately south of Devil’s Lake State Park between Highways 12 and 78.

The SPCA filed suit against the DNR in December 2016 and the General Services Administration and the federal Department of Interior’s National Park Service in January. The environmentalists claim the federal agencies inadequately supervised the DNR as management of the 3,400-acre property was transferred from federal to state control.

The lawsuit argues the agencies violated federal law by allowing the DNR to include high-impact recreation in its management plan without a thorough analysis of the activities’ environmental impact. A spokesman for the DNR has said the agency will not comment on pending litigation.

The SPCA in June filed a request for a preliminary injunction in the U.S. District Court of Western Wisconsin, but the motion was denied. The group was denied a similar request in Sauk County Circuit Court in March.

SPCA Executive Director Charlie Luthin said the group decided to appeal the federal court’s ruling because its members believe the high impact recreation has potential to negatively impact wildlife at the Sauk Prairie Recreation Area. He added that the group is optimistic about the appeal hearing.

“We don’t feel like we were given a fair consideration of our request for this temporary injunction of those high-impact activities,” Luthin said. “The fact that they are willing to listen to our arguments is important because I’m sure that the appellate court is bombarded with requests for appeals.”

Potts, a partner at Perkins Coie LLP in Madison, said the hearing has the potential to influence injunction rulings across state lines.

“The wheels of justice move slowly, but I think that the fact that they are allowing oral arguments and have allotted so much time to it, bodes well for us,” Potts said. “This court is a big deal, so whatever they decide could impact how injunctions are issued and these types of issues are resolved in multiple states.”

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