Sand dunes are seen at Kohler-Andrae State Park near Sheboygan, Wis. According to retired state Department of Natural Resources wetland ecologist Pat Trochlell, this sandy spot on the lakeshore is a globally rare and fragile dune system. The habitat was created over thousands of years, continually shifting with the wind. The dunes are held together without soil by roots, supporting several threatened species of plants and insects. Coburn Dukehart / Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism
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Conservatives on the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled Thursday that a conservation group couldn’t challenge an agency’s decision to sell state park land for the construction of a high-end golf course along the shores of Lake Michigan.

Opponents said the ruling will make it much harder for the public to challenge decisions of state agencies.

The court’s 4-3 ruling said that the Friends of the Black River Forest can’t challenge the Department of Natural Resources policy board’s 2014 decision to hand Kohler Co. 5 acres of Kohler-Andrae State Park and a 2-acre easement to be used in the company’s planned “world-class” golf course in Sheboygan County north of Milwaukee and about 10 miles from Kohler’s headquarters.

The court ruled that state law does not protect public use of the park.

“Today’s decision sets a disturbing new precedent for Wisconsinites and their ability to fight arbitrary and oppressive agency actions that affect their daily lives — actions that may extend far beyond where and whether they enjoy Wisconsin’s natural resources,” the Friends of the Black River Forest said in a statement.

The Wisconsin Natural Resources Board has agreed to swap land with the Kohler Co. to make way for a proposed golf course. Under the deal, 4.6 acres of Kohler-Andrae State Park and a nearly 2-acre easement will be traded for 9.5 acres of Kohler property with a house and several storage buildings.

Kohler-Andrae State Park encompasses about 990 acres along the shore of Lake Michigan just north of the city of Sheboygan. The Department of Natural Resources board in 2014, under the control of then-Republican Gov. Scott Walker, agreed to swap the land in question for about 10 acres Kohler Co. owned west of the park. Kohler, which is known for making bathroom fixtures, intended to use the land for a parking lot, maintenance facility and road for a golf course.

Friends of the Black River Forest challenged the land swap, alleging that it would deprive group members and the public of the use of public park land, reduce habitat for a range of animals and plants, and lead to increased noise and traffic around the park.

Judges in Sheboygan and Dane counties rejected the lawsuit, saying the group lacked standing to sue because the swap itself hadn’t caused any harm. An appellate court reversed those decisions, finding that the swap started a sequence of events that could lead to harm.

Thursday’s opinion was written by Justice Rebecca Bradley, who was joined by the court’s three other conservative justices, Annette Ziegler, Patience Roggensack and Brian Hagedorn. The three liberal justices — Jill Karofsky, Rebecca Dallet and Ann Bradley — dissented.

A wooded area is seen near the boundary between Wisconsins Kohler-Andrae State Park and land owned by the Kohler Co. The company is proposing to build an 18-hole golf course on the site. Photo taken Oct. 11, 2018. (Coburn Dukehart / Wisconsin Watch)

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Harm Venhuizen / Associated PressReport for America Corps Member

Harm Venhuizen is a state government reporter with The Associated Press in Madison, Wisconsin, primarily covering elections and voting rights. Prior to this, Venhuizen interned at Military Times. He holds a bachelor’s degree in political science and philosophy from Calvin University in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where he served as editor-in-chief of Chimes, the student paper. During his time at Chimes, he earned recognition for his investigative coverage of controversial personnel decisions, sexual assault and university employment policies against same-sex marriage. Venhuizen grew up on a small farm in rural Wisconsin, and spent a summer working as a wildfire firefighter with the U.S. Forest Service.