Repairing area bike trails is slow going, costly
On Monday, Feb. 4, community members gathered at Sparta City Hall to hear the Department of Natural Resources assessment of damage to area bike trails sustained during the severe storms and flooding events that occurred between last Aug. 17 and Sept. 17.
Flash flooding, landslides, and other debris caused structural damage along the bike trails, as well as major erosion and complete washouts of various sections.
The DNR estimates the storms caused approximately $3.7 million in damages to state properties alone, ranging across 14 south central counties. DNR estimates for damage to just the Elroy-Sparta Bike Trail total approximately $679,000. The 400 Trail sustained roughly $350,000 in damages.
Of the 100 miles of trail, only two sections out of four sustained heavy damage. The La Crosse River Trail and the Great River Trail both weathered the storms largely unscathed.
The Sparta-Elroy Trail took the brunt of the damage. Sections of the trail still remain closed due to severe washouts, large amounts of debris, and severe erosion of several bridge abutments.
The section of trail between Wilton and Kendall sustained the most extensive damage, and the trail between Norwalk and Elroy remains closed until further repairs can be made. However, the section between Kendall and Sparta was able to reopen for snowmobiling due to initial repairs and rerouting.
Flash flooding of the Kickapoo River resulted in heavy damage to the embankments along the stretch of trail between the Village of Wilton and Keystone Rd. East of Keystone Road, initial damage assessments deemed the nearby bridge structurally sound.
However the abutments leading up to and away from the bridge had sustained a significant amount of damage, making any approach of the bridge potentially hazardous. Abutment repairs began in early winter.
Tunnel 3, a popular feature along the route, had filled with water during the flooding, which left large amounts of sediment and debris in the tunnel, but is otherwise unscathed. The tunnel, which sits between Norwalk and Sparta, was included in the first stretch of trail to be reopened on September 28, following the storms and initial repairs.
Further repairs are needed on Tunnel 2 and its surrounding areas, and snowmobiles were detoured around the tunnel once the Kendall-Sparta section was deemed suitable for snowmobiling use. Currently, repairs are waiting for both the ground to thaw and for additional funding and contracts to become available before ground crews can resume work.
The DNR's Andrew Haffele, superintendent of the Wildcat Mountain Team, was instrumental in cleanup and repair efforts along the Sparta-Elroy Trail. He hesitated to put a date on when the stretch between Kendall and Elroy will be able to reopen. Still, he expressed tentative optimism that the trail could be repaired thoroughly enough to allow for a reopening as early as spring.
“We have enough funding to tackle as much as we can,” Haffele informed audience members. He added that additional funding would likely be found within the DNR itself, potentially in the range of $50,000 to $70,000, in order to resume cleanup and repair efforts.
Audience members were allowed to ask questions once the presentation concluded, focusing on what the local communities could do to assist in the cleanup efforts. Detours organized by the community were discussed, but as the most heavily damaged areas of the trail are located in more rural areas and not within the cities and villages along the way, organizing such detours could prove to be a difficult task.
The possibility of the DNR working with local government agencies to create alternative routes was a viable option. A concern for long-term viability of the trails and the repairs being made was also addressed, due to the severity of the storms and the close flooding events of the last few years.
Haffele mentioned that the DNR was “using folks with design expertise” in order to devise repairs that could strengthen the trails against future damages, but he also acknowledged the difficulties in immunizing the trail fully against 50- and 100-year floods. While there are certainly options that can be considered, Haffele was realistic in the limitations that could arise, primarily considering issues with private property, funding, and labor. There is also the issue of the Kickapoo and Baraboo Rivers to consider, as these waterways may change course in the future, which will impact certain areas of the bike trail.
Alli Karrels, executive director of the Deke Slayton Memorial Space and Bicycle Museum, inquired what individuals in the community could do to assist the process of cleanup and repairs. Haffele and several other community representatives highlighted the importance of consistent and up-to-date information being made available to the public as quickly as possible.
State Senator Jennifer Shilling added to the discussion by asking about the viability of using social media to educate and inform tourists and local communities on the status of the trails as well as how to handle the current status of affected sections.
Several sources which were mentioned as maintaining reliably updated information included the DNR website and the Sparta Chamber of Commerce website. Repairs will continue to be made as funding and construction contracts become available.
Currently, the stretch of trail between Sparta and Norwalk is open and deemed fully operational. The sections between Kendall and Sparta have been opened for snowmobiling, though the route has been detoured around Tunnel 2 due to remaining damage.
The stretch between Wilton and Kendall, which sustained the worst of the damage due to severe washout, remains closed to both pedestrian and snowmobile traffic. The DNR remains cautiously optimistic about it becoming operational at some point in the spring, but Haffele has acknowledged the possibility that sections of trail will not be safe to reopen at all.
“The biggest thing I want to advise is to be positive,” Regional Tourism Specialist Drew Nussbaum informed the room as the meeting drew to its conclusion.