No end in sight to fence controversy between UW and Dells Stewards

February 27, 2019
Donna Timm and the Dells Stewards share their concerns about the Upham Woods fence during a meeting in Lyndon.

Upham Woods and the University of Wisconsin Regents have no plans to revisit removing a fence that has sparked protests and controversy for nearly three years, despite the efforts of the Wisconsin Dells Stewards to force the fence’s removal.

Upham Woods Outdoor Learning Center installed the fence along the Highway N border of its Wisconsin River property in April 2016, amid what University of Wisconsin Extension officials said was “significant risk management” and “liability issues.”

The site is a popular boat launch among canoers and kayakers. Debbie Kinder of the Dells Stewards said people used the site for decades as a launching point to enjoy the Wisconsin River.

“The fence went in with no warning and no justification,” Kinder said. “It is the safest and most beautiful spot to put in, and is especially good for beginning kayakers.”

Upham Woods announced the fence several weeks before installing it in 2016, and participated in several meetings with Dells area recreationists after the installation, but have shown little interest recently in revisiting the issue.

The Stewards had hoped to present a petition at the March 7, 2019 Board of Regents meeting aimed at showing that the community supports removing the fence, but have not been placed on the meeting agenda.

“The Board’s Capital Planning & Budget Committee and UW System leadership were fully briefed on this issue in the fall of 2017,” Executive Director and Corporate Secretary Jessica Lathrop for the University of Wisconsin System Office of the Board of Regents said in an email. “The fence was erected at Upham Woods to address several issues, the most important of which was to provide a safe and secure environment for youth visiting and staying overnight at Upham Woods.”

Many in the Dells Stewards organization do not agree.

“I see taxpayer dollars when I see that fence,” said Dells Stewards member Donna Timm. “It is my constitutional right to use that river, but they put up a fence so there is no easy access... They said they put it up to protect the children, but to me the children are in the cabins… and you can’t see the cabins from the pullout.”

Although Wisconsin’s recreational immunity statute, section 895.52, provides governmental bodies with broad immunity against liability for injuries to people engaged in recreational activity on property owned by the government, there are exceptions from which the University of Wisconsin system could be looking to protect themselves.

The Upham Woods site hosts around 10,000 children a year, many of whom stay in the cabins at the campsite and who engage in recreational activities on the Wisconsin River or on Blackhawk Island, that is also owned by Upham Woods.

Upham Woods Director Justin Houghman has told the Dells Stewards he has seen everything from packs of cigarettes and beer bottles to human excrement on the shoreline of the island, and that preserving the shoreline and natural beauty of the property is an additional reason for the installation of the fence.

Upham Woods said in materials provided during one of the meetings between the Stewards and officials that “While many visitors and members of the community are good stewards of the land and river, some are not. Our primary responsibility is the safety and protection of the minor children using the campus, shorelines beaches and Blackhawk Island.”

While the Stewards admit there are viable concerns about trespassers on Blackhawk Island, Kinder claims that most of those trespassers are from pontoon boats and not paddlers or kayakers.

While there are other sites to access the Wisconsin River in the area, Kinder says those sites are not hospitable to beginners and that those sites cannot replace the access provided near Upham Woods.

“There is a floating dock in the city marina off of Illinois Ave., but you are immediately in the big river channel going upstream against a strong current,” Kinder said. “The River Bay Marina site is only safe in the early morning, you need a shuttle to get back, and there is a lot of traffic and wind.”

Among possible solutions that the Stewards have proposed are the annexation of the land to the city, the removal of the fence, regular cleanup conducted by the Stewards, and the installation of a floating dock off the south of the culvert from County N right-of-way.

Although the Dells Stewards have made little progress towards the removal of the fence, the Stewards claimed a victory with the removal of 16 “No Parking” signs in front of the fence in April 2017.

In a letter to Houghman, Juneau County Corporation Council David E. Lasker wrote that the signs were removed because “the public trust doctrine encoded in the WI Constitution dictates that the riparian rights of the owner must be tempered by the public’s right to free access to the waterway.”

The Stewards received a setback in August 2018 when the fence was extended to its current length of 230 feet.

Upham Woods has offered a “paddle pass” since 2017, which offers access to the Wisconsin River from the Upham Woods site, for a nominal fee. The program, which was developed in conjunction with former Wisconsin Dells Mayor Brian Landers, was offered as a compromise aimed at working with the community.

According to Kinder the pass is a perfunctory offer, and according to Wisconsin Dells Parks and Recreation no one has enrolled in the program to date.

“You have to apply through (Houghman’s) office, take a class, perform volunteer work at Upham Woods, and can only access the river from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.,” Kinder said. “This would preclude the early morning and evening hours… the safest time for paddlers to be on the river, (and) weekend time was not guaranteed.”

The Dells Stewards hope to have the issue resolved soon, but Kinder says that the lack of communication recently from the University of Wisconsin has been frustrating.

“I have the thought of suing, but I don’t want to be in an adversarial position,” Kinder said. “I hope we don’t get to that point, but it’s certainly a possibility.”

Until then, the Stewards are continuing to protest the fence and gather signatures for the petition to have the fence removed. The Stewards are also visiting local government meetings to share their story, and received a resolution of support for the removal of the fence from the City of Wisconsin Dells Common Council on Feb. 18.

The petition is available online at dellsstewards.org, and in person at the High Rock Café, the Showboat Saloon, the Sandstone Pub, and at Fitz’s on the Lake.