Detailed Summary of Rustic Road Developments

Over the last year, there have been lots of developments and twists and turns in our effort to protect the Rustic Road. What follows is a more detailed account of how we got to our current position.

  • Concerns Over Highway Department’s Original Plan for Rustic Road - In March 2022, a few local residents who live on the Rustic Road became concerned about the “brushing” operation taking place on Rustic Road 60. Trees up to 27’ from the edge of the pavement (up to 5’ beyond the legal county right-of-way) had been cut down (“brushed”) by the County’s Highway Department in the Star Lake area. We wanted to understand the Highway Department’s plans for the Rustic Road because this brushing was far different than what occurred in the past. In early April they met with Troy Schalinske, the Vilas County Highway Commissioner, and learned that the County’s original plan was to cut down all trees within 13’ of the existing road edge, expand the road by adding a 3’ paved shoulder and eliminate the tree canopy over the road.

  • Rustic Road Code – Wisconsin law takes a protective approach to Rustic Roads. Section 83.42 (1) of the Wisconsin Statute states the purpose of the Rustic Road System:

In order to create and preserve rustic and scenic roads for vehicular, bicycle . . . and pedestrian travel in unhurried, quiet and leisurely enjoyment; to protect and preserve recreational driving, culture, beauty, trees, vegetation and wildlife by establishing protective standards of rustic road design, access, speed, maintenance and identification, which will promote a continuous system of rustic roads and scenic easements for the public health and welfare; a state system of rustic roads is created.

Although the Highway Department is responsible for maintaining Rustic Road 60 and protecting the safety of the public, Wisconsin law requires it to preserve the rustic qualities of the road:

Trans-RR Section 1.08. “A rustic road shall receive the level of maintenance necessary for public travel by auto, bicycle or hiking for recreational enjoyment, while still preserving the rustic qualities of the route.“

In addition, necessary road improvements may be made but shall not disturb the rustic characteristics for which the road was designated. [1] Road improvements are also required to be kept as narrow as possible to retain the rustic charm of the road as well as keeping the driver’s speed lower."[2] It also provides that the "improvements shall be kept to a minimum to avoid disturbance of vegetation . . ." However, the Rustic Roads Code authorizes the Highway Department to trim or remove branches, shrubs and even whole trees “where necessary for safety or protection of the traveling public.”

  • Formation of Save Our Rustic Road – Based on concerns over the Highway Department’s plan for the Rustic Road and its failure to adhere to the Rustic Roads Code’s protections for Rustic Roads, we created the website and created a Save Our Rustic Roads Facebook page.[3] We also distributed yards signs, banners and flyers and urged the community to write the Vilas County Board of Supervisors, members of the Highway Committee and the Highway Department to express their concerns. The Rustic Road received wide-spread community support. Everyone loved our Rustic Road 60 and expressed enormous and vocal support for protecting it to local officials.

  • May 2022 Meeting and Creation of Joint Subcommittee – Members of the Save Our Rustic Road group and members of the community met with several Vilas County Board of Supervisors, the Highway Commissioner and members of his staff, the County

  • Forester and the Vice Chair of the Wisconsin Rustic Roads Board. At this meeting, Troy Schalinske (Highway Commissioner) and Willie Otterpohl (Highway Committee Chair) agreed to work with Save Our Rustic Road and other community representatives to establish ground rules and a written process for vegetation maintenance, road maintenance and road improvements on the Rustic Road. The Save Our Rustic Road group and County representatives worked together as the Rustic Road Subcommittee to develop these written ground rules for management of the Rustic Road. This effort ultimately resulted in the development of the Rustic Road Management Plan.

  • The Rustic Road Management Plan – Based on the agreements reached by the Rustic Road Subcommittee, Save Our Rustic Road created a draft Rustic Road Management Plan that reflected the agreed-upon approach for vegetation management, road repair and road improvements on Rustic Road 60. At the October 18, 2022 meeting of the Highway Committee of the Vilas County Board of Supervisors (the “Highway Committee Meeting”), the Highway Committee reviewed a revised version of the Rustic Road Management Plan created by the Highway Commissioner and the County’s legal counsel (the “County Plan”). The County Plan was substantively consistent with the Save Our Rustic Road draft plan. The County Plan (i) limited the “clear” or tree-free zone to 6’ from the edge of the pavement (not the 13’ contemplated by the original Highway Department plan), (ii) protected the tree canopy, (iii) provided for a 3’ gravel shoulder on each side of the road (not a 3’ paved shoulder), and (iv) restricted brushing to 6’ from the pavement edge (not the up to 17’ experienced on the Rustic Road in the Star Lake area). The primary difference between the County Plan and the Save Our Rustic Road’s draft plan was that the County Plan deleted provisions requiring the Highway Commissioner to notify, coordinate with or obtain the approval of the Rustic Road group taking certain action. A copy of the County Plan is attached.

  • The October 18, 2022 Highway Committee Meeting - The County Highway Committee did not formally approve the Plan at the meeting. The Rustic Road Group and members of the community in attendance pushed the Highway Committee for a long-term commitment to comply with the Plan to ensure the Rustic Road would be preserved for future generations. However, the Highway Committee indicated that it would not enter into a formal agreement to comply with the Plan and refused to adopt a formal resolution approving the Plan and directing the Highway Commissioner to comply with it.

Because of the Highway Committee’s apparent acceptance of the County Plan, the press reported that agreement on the Rustic Road management guidelines was reached. The headline of the Lakeland Times article was “Vilas County Highway Committee, Rustic Road group reach agreement” and the Vilas County News Review’s headline read “Restrictive guidelines set for managing Rustic Road.”

  • Highway Commissioner’s November 14, 2022 Letter – Following the Highway Committee Meeting, Save Our Rustic Road representatives contacted the Highway Commissioner and other County representatives to explore the possibility of obtaining formal approval of the County Plan. In response to these efforts, Troy Schalinske, Highway Commissioner, sent the Save Our Rustic Road group a letter dated November 14, 2022. A copy of this letter is attached.

In his letter, Troy Schalinske indicated that the mutually developed “standards will be used as a guide for necessary maintenance. . . It has been agreed upon that the highway department will be responsible to:

  • Maintain the existing twenty-two foot (22’) wide paved roadbed with no further widening of the pavement with the exception of the inside corners, where the county can widen 2’ around radius to aid in shoulder maintenance.

  • Maintain the existing three-foot (3’ wide gravel shoulders with no further widening and not be paved.

  • Maintain a 6 foot (6’) mow area from the edge of the pavement on both sides using normal mowing equipment necessary for maintenance.”

Instead of clarifying things, the letter raised several questions about the County’s and the Highway Department’s commitment to the County Plan. The Save Our Rustic Road group reached out to Troy Schalinske and other County representatives to discuss the meaning of the letter and possible revisions.

January 9, 2023 Rustic Road Subcommittee Meeting - On January 9, 2023, the Rustic Road joint subcommittee consisting of Save Our Rustic Road and community representatives (Joe Heitz, Dick Govier and Doug Scott) and County representatives (Troy Schalinske (Highway Commissioner), Chad Keranen (County Forester) and Mike MacKenzie (County Board of Supervisor) met to discuss Troy’s letter and the County’s commitment to the County Plan. We were advised that the letter was approved by the Highway Committee and County Legal Counsel. No changes were possible. At that meeting, we explained our concerns about the ambiguities in Troy’s letter, which did not mention “brushing” or even address restrictions on the cutting of trees along the Rustic Road.

At this meeting, Troy Schalinske explained that he remained committed to the 6’ brushing limitation and removing only those trees within 6’ of the pavement edge as provided in the County Plan. Everyone acknowledged the exception in both the County Plan and the Save Our Rustic Road’s draft plan to remove and trim dead or diseased trees and trees that represented a safety hazard. The Save Our Rustic Road and community representatives pointed out the challenges the community would have in accepting a leap of faith on these issues.

At the end of the meeting, Troy made this statement: “Let me prove the doubters wrong, as I deliver on each of my commitments.” The Commitments that Troy referenced are detailed in the Looking Forward section of this update. Save our Rustic Road and the community will be watching closely!