When it comes to the fate of the 14-mile Stower Seven Lakes State Trail (SSLST), residents of the area have wanted their voices heard on usage opinions. An open house, held at Amery’s Community Center Oct. 21, not only provided the opportunity for people on both sides of the controversy to state those opinions, but it also provided information to those who are still unsure where they stand in the debate.
Toole Design, a company brought in by Polk County, presented the SSLST Master Plan Open House. Participants were first presented what has taken place to date in regards to the trail planning and what upcoming plans are in store.
Input gathered from the Open House and listening sessions will give consultants insight on the public’s thoughts about snowmobile and horseback usage on the trail, as well
as other opportunities and challenges along the SSLT.
Key findings of a 2018 community engagement process were made available during the Open House. According to a chart presentation, percentages of people using the trail for certain activities were as follows: dog sledding 0.3, search and rescue training 0.6, off highway motorcycling riding 1.4, horseback riding 2.2, geocaching 2.5, harvesting berries and mushrooms 4.2, trail maintenance volunteering 7.7, snowshoeing 10.2, XC skiing 11.9, wildlife watching 20.4, snowmobiling 34.3, scenery viewing 39.6, ATV/UTV 37.9, bicycling 40.4, hiking/walking/running 44.8.
As for results of how landowners within 1,000 feet of the SSLST feel, it was close with 148 wishing to see the trail nonmotorized and 160 stating they would like to use the trail with their ATV or snowmobile. 39 respondents said they had no opinion.
According to the survey, when asked which trail type would have the greatest benefit for Polk County, it was close again. 41.45% responded they thought it would be multi-use motorized, while 42.62% said multiuse nonmotorized. 15.94% said simply multiuse.
One of the biggest frustrations for all involved has been the slow process of a final decision being made. A timeline presented at the Open House gave a detailed look into the past year and a half of trail discussions. According to the timeline, the Polk County board of supervisors authorized a master planning process in March 2018. By May 2018, the Polk County Environmental Services Committee (ESC) formed a Trail Planning Subcommittee.
A public survey was taken over the months of June and July 2018, with nearly 2,000 responses received. A public hearing was held afterward at Unity High School attracting a large public attendance, where attendees from both sides expressed their opinions.
In September 2018 the ESC recommended the addition of snowmobiles and horseback riding in the master plan. A month later the County Board amended the ESC recommendation by adding ATVs to the list of approved uses in the plan, as well as the development of a parallel silent sports-only trail, separate from the original rail trail.
The Wisconsin DNR stepped in during November 2018. In a letter sent to Polk County, the DNR detailed deficiencies in the master plan. The County Board rescinded their October 2018 action adding ATVs and the separate silent sports only trail and returned the master planning process to the ESC during a February 2019 meeting.
In June 2019, the County Board approved issuing a Request for Proposals for a consultant to assist the County in preparation of an update of the master plan. By September 2019, Toole Design was hired.
Attendees of the Open House were encouraged to leave Post-it notes with questions or comments about the master plan timeline, community input and trail funding requirements and opportunities.
A mapping station was provided for people to provide feedback about alignment and connectivity opportunities and challenges. At the conclusion of visiting stations, attendees filled out survey questions pertaining to snowmobiling and horseback riding on the SSLST. They were also asked to write three words to describe what they hope the SSLST will look and feel like in 2040.
A draft master plan by Toole Design will be made available for public review and consideration by the County Board in November.