Sunday, January 29th, 2023
Sunday, January 29th, 2023

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Amended Rib Mountain State Park plan adds 128 acres of alpine skiing in Wisconsin

A view overlooking the wooded landscape at Rib Mountain State Park in Wisconsin. (Contributed photo by Bayli Christorf)

Madison — The Natural Resources Board (NRB) adopted a revised master plan for Rib Mountain State Park that may expand the alpine skiing area by 128 acres, and potentially add a corridor from the state park to the Nine-Mile County Forest.

After hearing from 37 citizens at the Dec. 14 meeting, all but two in favor of the plan, the board amended, then adopted, the amended master plan proposed by the Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

The 1,600-acre state park sits on the west side of Wausau in Marathon County, and is close to the Nine-Mile County Forest.

Phil Rynish, DNR property planning section chief, confirmed that the new plan attracted lots of public interest. The DNR received over 6,000 public comments.

“The plan sets out a goal of enhancing the park as a year-round community asset, providing downhill skiing as long as feasible, and maintaining ecological areas,” Rynish said.

The downhill ski area is leased by Granite Peak Ski Corporation.

The DNR proposed expanding the park’s project boundary by 1,160 acres and increasing the acquisition goal by 450 acres to create a potential corridor connecting Rib Mountain State Park with Nine-Mile County Forest while protecting a large wooded hill west of the park.

The plan also would:

• Expand the potential ski lease area by 65 acres on the east and 35 acres on the west;

• Allow a 12- to 20-mile mountain bike trail system;

• Include a multiple-use trail around the base of the mountain;

• Provide four additional miles of hiking trails and identify rocky areas for climbing opportunities.

The park includes a 215-acre state natural area that would be reduced to 135 acres to protect a talus forest, including felsenmeer (rocky fragments above the timberline).

Rynish said the most controversy involved the alpine ski area, where some want a larger expansion and some want none. He said the DNR tried to strike a balance.

Many people from skiing and biking interests, and outdoor groups, supported the new plan, looking for more skiing, mountain biking, and lift biking.

Aaron Ruff, of the Central Wisconsin Off-Road Cycling Coalition, said the plan will help turn Wausau into an off-road cycling center.

Charlotte Skinner, of Granite Peak Ski Area that her family owns, said the ski area is now too steep to help beginning skiers learn to ski.

“The importance of the additional 25 acres that we are asking for in the west for skiing and mountain biking, will attract more skiers for longer days by offering a top-to-bottom beginner/intermediate ski experience for the whole family,” she said.

Amber Taylor, a local resident, opposed the plan because it provided too much benefit for skiing and mountain biking and does not strike a balance with the current trail system and the surrounding community.

“I find the language of the master plan to be very ambiguous by stating there is still a need for a south slope day area. I’m concerned this area will be considered again in the future,” she said.

The DNR had earlier removed the day area, yet refers to it in the plan. Taylor said the area was originally purchased by local residents and friends for $125,000 to insure preservation of the area as a non-developed status.

NRB member Dr. Frederick Prehn proposed an amendment, saying the DNR did a good job, but he reduced the area added to the west end of the park which would still allow a new lift to go over the state natural area and allow 63 acres for an additional lease with ski operators.

His amendment provided limited downhill skiing opportunities on the north side of the mountain, but with language that he said would insure minimal impacts to nature areas, geology, and ecology.

Prehn said winter activities will not impact the state natural area, which should not be a “sacred cow.” The impact will be minimal while the new plan will have a huge economic impact.

His amendment: Expand the leased western ski area to 63 acres (an increase from the DNR’s suggested 35 acres); allow a portion of the area on the hill’s north side to be included in a potential western ski area lease; allow a ski lift line to pass over the natural area without building new towers; and allow construction of a new facility and ski lift adjacent to a current ski run.

With that amendment, Prehn said the master plan has teeth, and protects the state natural area while allowing intermediate skiing and a lift for gravity bikers.

NRB member Marcy West expressed concerns over impacting the state natural area. Rynish concurred that the DNR had avoided the area to not have impacts. He said the DNR didn’t have time to examine the impact of Prehn’s amendment.

NRB member Bill Smith shared West’s concerns, and wanted more comment and assurance from DNR ecologists that vulnerable communities would be protected.

NRB member Greg Kazmierski wanted to get the plan passed and suggested adding a note “as long as there was no environmental impact,” but Prehn did not agree. Kazmierski then deferred, saying parks should be for as many people as possible, realizing there are many other state natural areas.

The amended plan was finally approved by a vote of six in favor, with West abstaining.

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