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Willow River to become area’s first water trail

DNR Wildlife Biologist Harvey Halvorsen (center) reviews a map of the proposed Willow River Water Trail project with interested residents last Wednesday night at the Richmond town hall. (Photo by Tom Lindfors)

Exciting new opportunity for paddlers

Word that the New Richmond Pathways Committee, in conjunction with the DNR, was considering a project that would strategically “clear” a water trail for canoeists and kayakers to paddle the Willow River filled the Richmond town hall last Wednesday evening.

An audience of landowners and city officials joined paddling and outdoor enthusiasts to listen to presentations by NR Pathway Committee Chairman Jim Heebink, DNR Wildlife Biologist Harvey Halvorsen and Wisconsin Conservation Corps (WisCorps) Operations Director Willie Bittner explaining the idea behind a water trail and the steps involved in clearing a trail on the Willow River.

Amidst an atmosphere that could best be described as both curious and concerned, Halvorsen took the audience on a virtual paddle down the river using a slide show to document the existing impingements on the river caused by large downed trees, timber jams and discarded tires.

Halvorsen explained the idea is to open up the river just enough to allow canoeists and kayakers to paddle the stretch of water starting from the Nature Center at County Highway A in New Richmond down river to 100th Street at Boardman without having to climb over and portage around obstacles in the river.

“The DNR has a growing interest in developing water trails. What we’re looking to do is to remove just enough obstacles like snags, log jams and some of the overhanging debris that make paddling very challenging. No heavy equipment is brought in. We don’t use derricks or cranes, it’s all chainsawed by hand,” Halvorsen said.

Halvorsen’s initial survey of the river revealed 24 areas with significant obstacles. By removing just enough of the obstacles to create a narrow channel only four to eight feet wide, the intimacy of the river can be preserved.

A map that was on display at the most recent meeting at the Richmond town hall. (Tom Lindfors photo)In order to clear the trail, the DNR is asking adjacent landowners to sign permission forms granting the DNR access to the river over their property.

“We might need some overland access so we don’t have to worry about canoeing all the way back upstream to get to the spot where the crew left off work the day before and to carry out debris in some cases. That’s why we’re asking landowners to sign permission slips,” Halvorsen said.

The crew Halvorsen has in mind to accomplish the river clearing is WisCorps.

Willie Bittner formed WisCorps as a fee-for-service non-profit conservation organization in 2009. Employing more than 100 youth and adults this summer in eight crews, WisCorps has completed projects all across the Midwest from Isle Royale to Indiana Dunes. Headquartered in La Crosse, Bittner’s staff also provides conservation education to K-12 students reaching about 7,000 to 8,000 students annually around the state.

“A typical WisCorp crew costs about $7,000 per-week. That includes everything — supervision, gear, food, tools, equipment. For a project like this, you would need two skilled crew leaders and four to five corps members. We come with everything we need to camp. For this project we’d be camping right here on the lawn of the town hall. We’re able to fundraise for part of those costs — about $2,000 — so it ends up costing you about $5,000 for a week of work,” Bittner said.

Halvorsen emphasized the clearing would be conducted with the utmost respect for the river’s entire ecology, including its wildlife and aquatic life. Bittner’s crews specialize in working in river environments.

“When we are working in water, we’re running all biofuel or no oil in the chainsaws. We run all veggie-based, no-petroleum fuels in the chainsaws. As a conservation organization, we try to be as conservation-minded as possible … really minimal on the tools. It’s really a matter of cutting up jams and pulling them apart. The idea is to move the debris to the side. Some of it might sink and become fish habitat,” said Bittner.

Appreciating that a river is a living thing with an ever-changing profile affected differently every year by weather and fluctuating water levels, both Halvorsen and Bittner encouraged the formation of a friends group to maintain the trail once Bittner’s crew had finished the initial carpentry.

“There’s been a couple members of the Rotary that actually want to do some of the work right now. Getting a commitment from some of the existing organizations might spawn the start of this friends group. But everyone has to realize this is not a ‘one-and-done’ project. It may, at times, cost a bit of money to keep it going,” Heebink said.

As far as funding the project, Halvorsen reported the Upper Willow River Rehabilitation District, a taxation authority established a number of years ago, has made a donation to the New Richmond Area Community Foundation earmarked for this project.

Audience members asked a number of questions and expressed both their concern and enthusiasm for the proposed project.

Those attending the meeting in Boardman discuss the issue at hand. (Tom Lindfors photo)Many of the audience members’ concerns focused on how to deal with whatever adverse consequences might accompany increased access to the river, including potential tubing, excessive noise, trespassing, littering, and injuries to paddlers.

Halvorsen, Bittner, DNR Conservation Warden Paul Sickman and Fisheries Biologist Marty Engel took turns addressing questions.

“For any sort of navigation on the river — fishing, kayaking, canoeing — individuals have the right, by case law, to get up on dry land and, by using the quickest most direct route, get around any obstructions and then get back in the water,” explained Sickman.

However, landowners are not liable for any injuries that might occur to folks using their land to bypass obstructions.

“State statute protects landowners from any liability for people recreating on the water or on the land as long as you are not collecting a fee,” Sickman said.

In the end, it was suggested that vigilance and documentation of behavior on the river by landowners and paddlers, combined with signage to educate new users, might be the best course to pursue to establish a healthy culture of respect for the new trail.

Bittner suggested that with enough notoriety, the project might become a model for rivers throughout northwestern Wisconsin.

“I’ve never been on a section of river that had so many green herons. Really remarkable. This project has the potential to be a starting point for inland water trails in the state. Maybe it becomes state designated. Maybe no inflatables becomes part of that designation.”

To find out more about the project or to volunteer, visit the New Richmond Pathway Committee’s Facebook page at; call Jim Heebink at 715-246-5137, or Harvey Halvorsen at 715-220-5425.