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Ammo Plant Evolves into Recreational Area Amidst Public Debate

When the DNR opens the Sauk Prairie Recreational Area – south of Baraboo next year- it might feature a shooting range and ATV trails. Public opinion is mixed.

The recreational area will take shape on what was one of the largest ammunition plants in the world. Locals call it “Badger.”

Local citizens erected memorial to families who farmed and were displaced from the land.

The U.S. Army relocated 80 farming families in 1941 to create the huge ammunition factory. It absorbed several small schools, churches and a town hall.

Badger employed tens of thousands of people and manufactured smokeless gunpowder and rocket propellant. U.S. troops used it across three wars – World War II, Korea and Vietnam. Workers disposed of leftover chemicals by dumping them into pits and burning them.

David Tremble meets me in front of one of the few remaining buildings.

"We’re near the U.S. Hwy 12 entrance to the property. There’s still a fence that surrounds the entire area and there’s still security. But during the week under certain circumstances it’s still possible to get inside and our organization has an arrangement with the Army that allows us to do restoration work on certain parts of the property,” Tremble says.

Tremble belongs to the Sauk Prairie Preservation Alliance. It’s put more than a decade of grunt work into restoring a smidge of what was an ancient 14,000-acre prairie. He says years ago, the alliance and 20 other groups, including the DNR crafted a Badger Reuse Plan.

“Created in 2000 and 2001 and recognized that to get the maximum conservation value, no matter how many owners there might be, they need to work together and collaborate. So that a use that’s implemented at one part doesn’t negatively impact projects and uses in another area, as well as the wildlife and natural communities that still exist here,” Tremble says.

Now that the DNR might fold in a shooting range and trails for motorized vehicles, Tremble is not pleased.

“They basically overturned the thinking of the reuse plan and the management of the property as a whole and created this special use zone where they intend to isolate obnoxious uses that aren’t compatible with the rest of the property,” Tremble says.

Neighbor Laura Olah started watch dogging the Badger property long before there was talk of “special zoning”.

“In 1990 the Army had installed deeper monitoring wells on the southern boundary of the plant and hit the contamination. There were public meetings and it was on the television that anyone who wanted to get their water tested could get it tested. That’s when they found that three drinking water wells were contaminated with high levels of solvents,” Olah says.

Olah says she’s concerned about polluted soil as well – and what ATV’s might kick-up.

Ginny Krumenauer lives a half-mile away from what might be specially zoned and is worried.

“I’d be afraid to walk out to my garden; I’d be afraid to have my grandchildren play outside. And we have some trails through our woods that grandpa takes them on. And would all of that go down the drain? Within 20 miles we have something like 17 shooting ranges. So why do we need another one in Badger,” Krumenauer says.

Randy Harden is not a target shooting connoisseur.  He and his family revel in the out-of-doors atop all terrain vehicles and he is  president of the Wisconsin ATV Association.  Harden says people often have to travel long distances to connect to trails.  He says that's true of the Sauk Prairie area.

“There’s nothing over there; in fact, I’m looking here at a map that shows all of our trails systems. The closest one is up in northern Adams County and then it’s over in Jackson and Clark County,” Harden says.

As for dust, Harden says planners could manage it.

“From wood chips, like I said there’s treatment that can be put on to alleviate the dust – different type of topping soil that you can put on. Those are all things we’re faced with in different part of the state in the state system. Those are all issues that you can mitigate through the responsible management we’re talking about,” Harden says.

Harden insists there’s room for everyone’s interests on the Sauk Prairie parcel.

The DNR just finished collecting public opinion and anticipates opening the Sauk Prairie Recreational Area in 2014.

Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.