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Sunday, Dec. 30, 2012

Dodging a Bullet

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Devil's Lake State Park
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After all the grim news we’ve had to endure at the end of the year, isn’t it great to live in a state where we don’t have to go very far at all to retreat into natural beauty and spiritual solitude?

What many people who truly love Wisconsin’s natural environment may not realize is they just dodged a bullet. Literally.

Because of the wisdom and foresight of state leaders throughout its history, Wisconsin is blessed with 49 state parks covering 72,156 acres, nine other recreational areas over 17,547 acres, and 2,000 miles of hiking and biking trails.

Because of the absence of anything remotely resembling wisdom in the Republican-controlled Legislature, Wisconsin’s recreational public lands just missed being transformed into shooting galleries that would put everyone who enjoys them at risk.

Because Republicans controlled the governor’s office and both houses of the Legislature, most people know they rammed through all kinds of extreme laws with little thought or discussion.

But many still may find it hard to believe that one of those laws would allow the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to open up all our state parks, which non-hunters now use freely, to hunters and trappers armed with deadly weapons and maiming traps.

We know nearly a million Wisconsinites engage in various forms of hunting and they exercise outsized control over the state department that should be managing natural areas for all of us.

But the five million other state residents who use state parks every year to hike, bike, ski, watch birds, walk dogs, picnic with their families or simply to enjoy the solitude of nature don’t really expect to have to dodge bullets or warn little Tiffany to watch out for steel-jawed traps while she’s laughing and playing in the leaves.

 

Overwhelming Public Opposition

The reason many people weren’t aware of the threat is because state Rep. Jeffrey Mursau (R-Crivitz) added it as an amendment nine days after the only public hearing on an Assembly bill primarily of interest to hunters and fishermen.

Any pretense of concern for public safety was perfunctory. Hunters were required to stay at least 100 yards from designated-use areas in parks. Of course, many bullets travel much further and one of the attractions of the woods for other users is getting off trails and roads.

The only real opportunity for public input was before the DNR’s Natural Resources Board, which was required to approve rules to implement a law somehow combining lethal and non-lethal recreation in our state parks.

As more and more people around the state learned about the law, the objections were overwhelming. Of the more than 2,000 public comments the board received at five listening sessions around the state, 96% objected to the absurdly dangerous idea.

The opposition included plenty of hunters who were concerned that the obvious danger to the public would have the perverse effect of swelling public opposition to hunting in general.

Unfortunately, Gov. Scott Walker’s DNR secretary is Cathy Stepp, a real estate developer and anti-environment former Republican legislator whose primary interest seems to be making sure that protecting the state’s wetlands and wildlife doesn’t interfere with the profits of developers.

The plan Stepp submitted to the Natural Resources Board at a jammed public meeting on Dec. 11 was modified only slightly to open up two-thirds of each state park to hunting and trapping from Oct. 15 to Memorial Day in late May every year.

Rep. Mursau, the law’s co-sponsor, further infuriated the crowd by arrogantly proclaiming, “Peace and quiet is not a constitutional right,” as apparently he believes shooting up public parks with guns to be.

Fortunately, after again hearing overwhelming public objections from most who testified, the Natural Resources Board voted unanimously to restrict hunting in most state parks and trails to one month from Nov. 15 to Dec. 15 and three more weeks during turkey hunting season in April.

That’s too much, but at least our state parks won’t become free-fire zones littered with traps to ensnare unsuspecting families seven months out of the year. Hunters still will have six or seven million acres of non-park hunting land where they’re less likely to murder hikers and birders.

You wouldn’t expect many folks to be upset about that, except, of course, for the nation’s leading proponent of ignorance and guns.

“Members of the Wisconsin Natural Resources Board caved to radical activists” using “the baseless claim of protecting public safety,” wailed the National Rifle Association.

There’s nothing radical or baseless about citizens preferring not to be shot at or caught in the jaws of steel traps in their own state parks.

Hunters’ fond dreams of shooting whatever they want wherever they want shouldn’t trump the desire of the rest of us to enjoy the peace and beauty of our state.

If that’s not a constitutional right, it should be.