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Save Our Rustic Road group unsatisfied with Vilas County response to Rustic Road 60 concerns

Twelves miles of County Highway K is a designation Rustic Road.
Katie Thoresen
Twelves miles of County Highway K is a designation Rustic Road.

A 12-mile stretch of County Highway K in western Vilas County is one of Wisconsin’s Rustic Roads.

The route has been featured in travel magazines, websites, and brochures.

To earn the designation the route has to have “unusual or outstanding natural beauty”.

It’s a designation a growing group of people now fear is in jeopardy because of work being done by the county highway department.

Rustic Road 60
Wisconsin DOT
Rustic Road 60

Clearing the brush

In early spring, before the leaves have even sprouted on the trees, you can see the beauty of Rustic Road-60 on County Highway K between Star Lake and Boulder Junction.

Conifers and hardwoods tower over the road creating a canopy tunnel. The edge of road nearly meets up with the shores of a couple of lakes along the route.

But it’s a not so picturesque part of the road Libby Scott is showing me as she drives us down the road.

Highway crews have spent the last couple of months clearing brush several feet and in some places much further from the road edge to make room for a three-foot shoulder on either side. Libby shared photos of some sections where up to 35 feet had been cleared. The work is now on hold as a precaution against oak wilt.

Now that the snow has melted, about a foot of the skinny stumps stick up like jagged spikes on either side of the road in some portions.

Libby has been visiting her family’s lake home in Star Lake her entire life.

She and her husband Doug moved up here full-time about two years ago and now live just off Highway K on Ballard Lake.

On any other county highway this kind of brushing would be considered normal, but Libby’s concern is that it’s too drastic for a stretch of road that’s be given the Rustic Road designation.

“If there were reasonable concerns about safety or maintenance or anything, we’re reasonable. We understand trimming is necessary, but this is not trimming. We have never seen a haircut like this before,” said Libby.

Learning the plans

The brushing led to her husband and a few of their neighbors having a conservation with Vilas County Highway Commissioner Troy Schalinske about future plans for the road.

Schalinske said they were clearing three-feet on either side of the road to eventually pave them as shoulders to make it safer for bicyclists and make more room for plows. Right now, the road is so narrow plows something have to cross the center line to avoid hitting trees on the side of the road.

There’s also discussion of adding a 10-foot-wide buffer on either side of the road as well as cutting back further in places to reduce the over canopy on the road, one of the main features of the Rustic Road.

When asked why these changes were happening now, Doug was told several reasons including reducing the number of accidents and cost to maintain the road.

It’s also prep work for major construction in 2025 when the road needs to be repaved, something that hasn’t been done since the mid-90s. Schalinske says the pavement has reached the end of its life-cycle.

Doug did some research and found that stretch of County Highway K has comparatively fewer car accidents when looking at other county highways and no fatalities. He says there’s also been few major construction projects over the years making him question how much the Rustic Road was costing the county in maintenance.

“I felt that the justifications were not well-based and that were pretextual. That wasn’t the real reason,” said Doug.

Uniting the Community

The Scott’s aren’t the only one’s upset by the changes.

“It’ll ruin County K. It just won’t be the same. Part of the magic is the way you come around that corner off the of new K stretch and it’s like you enter a magic kingdom,” said Susie Wilsie Govier.

Just down the road, Susie was born and raise in Boulder Junction. She and her husband Dick live on the Rustic Road portion of Highway K.

Sitting on their front porch we watch cars drive down the Rustic Road.

Her father came to the Northwoods with the CCC camps during the depression and later created Aqualand Zoo. Until this year, she and her husband owned the restaurant of the same name in town.

“I remember when they put in the new connection of new K from Highway N into where the winding and covered part of the road starts,” said Susie.

Susie has seen the road at just about every stage over the years, it’s become more than just a path to travel.

“There’s nothing like it. Whenever I’m gone and came home, my kids as well, we would all go ‘We’re home’. The minute you hit that tunnel, your blood pressure goes down. You’re peaceful, you’re happy and you’re home,” said Susie.

The couple was caught off guard when highway crews started clearing brush right in front of their house and on their property. They didn’t get any notice the trimming would be happening.

“They knew we were unhappy. The most unhappiness stems from the overreach beyond the easement into the trees that are on our land and off of the easement which they were limbing because the limb reached over the easement,” said Susie.

Many who live along the Rustic Road fear if the highway department continues its work, it will ruin the rustic characteristic of the road.

That could lead to it losing its Rustic Road designation along with its charm and the tourism dollars that come with it.

“You hear from people that that’s why they’re here. It definitely is a tourist attraction. There are people who pick up the map of all the Rustic Roads in Wisconsin and have to hit them all,” said Susie.

The disagreement between the residents and county has become contentious to the point that the Sheriff’s Office has been called out during brushing operations a couple times, with at least one resident getting arrested.

Libby and Doug Scott decided to form the Save Our Rustic Road group to rally people to their cause.

Libby stressed they want to be reasonable. They understand making changes for safety reasons but believes there’s a way to work with the county to accomplish that while still maintaining the Rustic Road designation.

It’s what lead more than a dozen people behind the cause to appear at the Vilas County Highway Committee meeting Tuesday.

Highway Committee Meeting

An item was put on the agenda to discuss the Rustic Road section of Highway K.

Libby said she was told ahead of time by Willy Otterpohl, the committee chair and her county supervisor, that people would get a chance to talk, and the county would backtrack, apologize, and focus on keeping the rustic road intact going forward.

Libby Scott urges the Vilas County Highway Committee to take steps to preserve Rustic Road 60 while her husband shows photos of the clearing that's been done.
Katie Thoresen
Libby Scott urges the Vilas County Highway Committee to take steps to preserve Rustic Road 60 while her husband shows photos of the clearing that's been done.

WXPR left a voicemail for Otterpohl and sent him and email after Tuesday’s meeting to confirm that and haven’t gotten a response by the time of this publishing.

But what Libby thought was going to happen, did not.

Highway Commissioner Troy Schalinske started things off by explaining how they got to this point.

He told everyone in attendance they were following DOT Trans RR-1 (Rustic Roads) guidelines for maintaining county highways.You can read the document he sent WXPR about it here.

Several people that got up to speak after said that those Rustic Road guidelines require counties to “still preserve the rustic qualities of the road.”

WXPR spoke on the phone with Schalinske the next day. He said the Rustic Road guidelines are vague which can make them hard to follow, but that he does want to maintain the rustic road designation.

There is disagreement between the county and the community on what work would change those “rustic qualities.”

The Save Our Rustic Road group wants a seat at the table when it comes to discussing any future projects on the road.

“Once we cut back this canopy, it’s done. We’re going to lose the character and we can’t get it back,” said Libby Scott. “Our goal is to open a line of communication with the board of supervisors.”

No action was taken at the meeting.

But as the committee was ready to move onto the next item, people in attendance wanted answers. It led to community members shouting out questions to the committee until Otterpohl said they were moving on.

When it was clear, they weren’t going to get answers, people filed out of the meeting disappointed and angry.

“I don’t know what to think other than I know that our cause continues. We’re just getting started,” said Libby.

As for right now, the highway commissioner’s plan is to clean up from the brushing operation that took place over the winter and pick it up again once the concern for oak wilt has passed later this summer and into the fall.

Schalinske told me there will be more opportunities for discussion and public input when the county begins putting together the project plan for the repaving that’s scheduled for 2025.

The Save Our Rustic Road group doesn’t plan on waiting around.

Doug Scott plans on forming a non-profit organization to support the preservation of the road and plan events for the area.

The group is also considering legal action if necessary.

It was a route they say they were hoping to avoid, but one they believe might be necessary to protect the Rustic Route they love.

Katie Thoresen is WXPR's News Director/Vice President.
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