It’s the dirty little secret of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources: Take a walk or bike on a state trail in Wisconsin during night-time hours and you unknowingly become a criminal subject to a $175 fine.

That’s because buried in a section of the voluminous administrative code for which state government is notorious is a provision that state trails are closed from 11 p.m. until 6 a.m. Known as NR45.04, the rule was created by the DNR in 1984.

In Adopting the rule, the DNR set hours for all state properties under its control. Rules that applied to parks were applied to trails, too. Twenty-nine years later things have dramatically changed, with biking events and bike commuters using state trails at night. Most of us have adapted, but the DNR has not.

The existence of the closed period for trails first came to light because of a controversy over an event on the Badger State Trail, which runs from Madison, Wisconsin, south to the Illinois border. Called “Pick Me Up at the Border,” the event starts at the state capitol.

Riders pedal to the state line and the first one there gets the privilege of hauling a bike trailer with beer and snacks back to Madison, while others lighten their load along the way. Most participants get back to the capitol square in time for the farmer’s market the next morning.

“Pick Me Up” is only promoted via email lists, mainly among mountain bikers, and went unnoticed in 2011. Last year DNR officials found out about the event after the fact and wardens went after the organizer, threatening to require a permit and liability insurance, which cost money. The event is free (donations are accepted to help fund the trail), so requiring hundreds of dollars worth of insurance would effectively end the event. Sixty riders participated last year.

This year the event went on again surreptitiously, albeit with lower participation due to DNR threats. At the north end, city of Fitchburg police provided protection at a high-traffic road crossing. Down the trail, DNR wardens were asleep, counting sheep instead of violators.

There’s a move afoot to repeal the closing hours for state trails. The Wisconsin Nonmotorized Recreation and Transportation Tails Council, Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin and the Friends of Badger State Trail have all endorsed a repeal of the rule. Their actions are based on the fact that state trails are no longer “parks” but are part of the state’s transportation system. 

People use the trails to get to and from work, take care of their business, as well as recreate and work out to stay fit. And some of those activities take place during the period DNR does not want anyone on the trails.

“The rule has not been actively enforced but it is an appropriate tool to use when problems develop,” one of the DNR superintendents told me.

Well, maybe in a park where people congregate and you can have confrontations over noise, drinking and so on. But in a transportation corridor ? We don’t shut down highways at night. Why trails?

I find it interesting that it was a small, benign bicycle event that got DNR officials all worked up and led to disclosure of their “dirty little secret.” It makes me wonder why they are not as concerned with snowmobile groups going bar hopping during the closed period. Maybe that’s the next chapter on the road to repeal.

Bill Hauda is president of Friends of the Badger State Trail and a member of the Nonmotorized Recreation and Transportation Trails Council and Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin Board of Directors.