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Monday, September 22, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 47.0° F  Fair
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Water gone wild
Parfrey's Glen and 400 State Trail still wiped out from June's flooding
on
Severe washouts on the 400 State Trail.
Severe washouts on the 400 State Trail.
Credit:State Department of natural resources photos

The torrential storms that swept through southern Wisconsin in June, bringing destruction to people's lives, property and the landscape, also left their mark on state parks and trails in the region. Kate Zurlo-Cuva, operations coordinator for the state parks system, estimates damage costs for these properties at $1.5 million.

In terms of ongoing recovery efforts at affected state parks and trails, $1.5 million represents countless hours of assessment, planning and labor. But it also represents a shift to more sustainable trail-building methods that may pay dividends for decades to come.

State parks director Daniel Schuller says the areas hardest hit by the storms include Devil's Lake and Wildcat Mountain state parks, the Elroy-Sparta and 400 state trails and Parfrey's Glen state natural area. Some, including Elroy-Sparta and Devil's Lake, have reopened, although some areas at Devil's Lake remain off-limits.

Nearby Parfrey's Glen may not reopen until late this year or early 2009. One day after paying a visit there, Schuller describes a scene that might break the hearts of anyone who has visited that fragile state natural area: "The entire natural-area trail system in the glen has been damaged or moved by the flooding through that small watershed." The torrents of June tumbled boulders and rocks and sand from the upland part of the refuge further down the ravine.

"The stream actually relocated itself in many places in the glen," says Schuller, "and damaged basically all of our boardwalk system that was part of the trail." Wisconsin state parks staff have been working with volunteers to clean up the resulting mess, and plan to reroute the trail in an effort to make it more sustainable - more resistant to future floods and erosion.

Reestablishing the trail is essential before the property can be opened. Parfrey's Glen is an endangered resources property, a classification distinct from a state park. Some of the glen's plant communities are unique to south central Wisconsin and include a number of rare or uncommon flora found in wet canyons. "The way we protect them is to keep the public on the trail so they can view these sites as a natural area but not damage the plants by overrunning them," says Schuller.

Recovery efforts at other hard-hit areas continue. At Devil's Lake, the Tumbled Rocks Trail remains closed, and there are some restrictions on boat launching, but campgrounds and concessions are open. So is the road along the lake's south shore, parts of which were navigable by kayak after the storms. Portions of the north shore picnic area remain closed due to standing water left by the lake when it overflowed its shoreline; trees there may be unstable.

Only eight miles of the 22-mile 400 State Trail are open. It ordinarily runs from Reedsburg to Elroy, but the trail is closed from Wonewoc to Reedsburg due to damaged bridges and trail surfaces. "The bridges are built on the top of rail banks," Zurlo-Cuva explains, "and were actually raised up by the flooding levels and then debris got underneath them." After the floods receded, the bridges settled on top of the debris, rendering them unsafe.

There is some urgency to restoring the bridges and opening the 400 trail: "Snowmobiling is a big use on the 400 trail in the winter season," Zurlo-Cuva notes, and a number of businesses depend on the trail for their livelihood. "We're very aware of those issues, so we're working as fast as we can."

The upside of all this, Schuller and Zurlo-Cuva say, is that it has led state parks and trails staff to rethink the methods and materials they use to build trails, boardwalks and bridges. "There are ways to reroute a trail, for example, so erosion doesn't occur in the same way again," says Zurlo-Cuva.

Schuller says these new approaches will mitigate damage and decrease the need for maintenance after common rainstorms as well as more catastrophic meteorological events. "We're building trails now with a bit of a crown effect, and we're trying to build them following the contours of the slopes, [so]...the water sheets across the trail rather than creating a gulley down the trail." The model is also being used at other state parks and trails, including Wyalusing and Governor Dodge.

People who want to get a closer look at the recovery process or the new trail-building methods are welcome to volunteer. There's an application on the website at wiparks.net, or "You can contact a property near you directly and talk to the manager about opportunities," says Zurlo-Cuva. "There's no end of things folks can do."

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