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Federal judge: DNR employees violated rights of Friends group

DNR said it would terminate Friends of Blue Mound State Park agreement unless the group withdrew a lawsuit against agency

Wisconsin DNR
Melissa Ingells/WPR

A federal judge has found that two employees with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources violated the rights of a group that challenged the agency’s decision to construct a snowmobile trail in Blue Mound State Park.

The Friends of Blue Mound State Park sued the DNR in Dane County Circuit Court in 2021 over the new trail in the park located 25 miles west of Madison. They claimed the agency failed to thoroughly review its environmental impacts, arguing increased snowmobile use could pose safety risks for silent sport enthusiasts.

On Thursday, U.S. District Judge James D. Peterson declared that DNR employees Steven Schmelzer and Melissa VanLanduyt violated the group’s rights under the First Amendment and Wisconsin Constitution by threatening to end the agency’s agreement with the group for filing the lawsuit.

VanLanduyt is the agency’s recreation partnership section chief for the Wisconsin State Park System. Schmelzer is the DNR’s parks and recreation management director.

The judge also issued a permanent injunction barring any DNR employee, including Schmelzer and VanLanduyt, from terminating or threatening to end the group’s agreement with the agency. The agreement allows the group to host events and raise money for the park and agency among other things.

Brian Potts, an attorney for the Friends group, told WPR no one in state government should act this way.

“State government actors should not be threatening anyone who is challenging the state in court,” Potts said. “We shouldn’t even have to say that out loud.”

A DNR spokesperson said the agency is reviewing the ruling.

Haze from Canadian wildfires is seen at an overlook at Blue Mounds State Park.
Haze from Canadian wildfires is seen at an overlook at Blue Mound State Park on Wednesday, June 28, 2023. Photo courtesy of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources

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In its initial complaint, the Friends group said the two DNR employees threatened to terminate their agreement in a meeting on Aug. 5, 2021, unless the group withdrew its lawsuit. The group also contended the DNR violated Wisconsin’s open records law by failing to provide records of the threat to end the agreement, and it argued the agency issued an unlawful “rule against speaking out” that violated their rights and state law.

A day before the meeting, VanLanduyt and Schmelzer sent an email to the group with an agenda attached that stated, “We will be initiating our 30 days (notice of termination) with an opportunity to cure if necessary.” The agenda further stated the only cure was “to drop the suit.”

“They think they’re above the law,” Potts said. “They’re just kind of rogue and out of control. And no one seems to be paying any attention in the (Gov. Tony Evers) administration or in the (Attorney General Josh Kaul) administration, which has been pretty counterintuitive given Evers’ and Kaul’s public support for the environment.”

An Evers spokesperson didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment Friday. A DOJ spokesperson said Kaul was unavailable to respond.

The judge ruled in favor of the DNR on the group’s open records claim because the agency provided the records in question prior to the group filing its federal lawsuit.

In another email, VanLanduyt told Diane Brusoe, the agency’s deputy division administrator for the Fish, Wildlife, and Parks Division, that agreements with Friends groups outline reasons they can be dissolved that include “Friends groups speaking out publicly against the department.”

The judge previously sided with the DNR on the group’s claim that the agency had issued an unlawful rule related to speaking out against the agency. Peterson found there was uncertainty whether any rule exists, citing a lack of evidence that friends agreements have been terminated for that reason.

Following the August 2021 meeting, the group filed another lawsuit seeking review of the agency’s decision to deny its petition for a contested case hearing. The two cases were consolidated and moved to Iowa County Circuit Court. A judge there dismissed the case on grounds that the group is barred from suing the DNR under its articles of incorporation, adding the group lacked standing in its challenge related to the contested case hearing.

The Friends group is appealing the court’s decision on the contested case hearing. In the meantime, the court has put a hold on construction of the snowmobile trail within the park.