TOWN OF MAZOMANIE (AP) -- Nudity on the beach? Sure. Sex in the woods? No way. Nudists from around the country have flocked to a section of soft, sandy Wisconsin River shoreline for decades, confident police and prosecutors won't go after them for leaving their Bermudas and bikinis behind. But the fun doesn't stop at volleyball and sunbathing, many people are slipping off into the woods for sex.
Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources warden reports read like pornographic novels, but the agency can't seem to halt the hookups.
The agency said Tuesday it plans to close woods around the beach to the public this week in an attempt to force people to stay in view and show some decorum. But residents say they've been shocked by things people do out in the open. "They were having sex right on the islands, the sandbars when the river was lower,'' said Ruth Bender, who owns property directly across the river from the beach. "People can't understand something like that is going on. That's a nice section of the river. I don't know what fun they get out of that.''
The DNR bought the sandbar-studded section of the Wisconsin River about 25 miles northwest of the capital of Madison in 1949 in an effort to open up more land for hunting, fishing and other outdoor activities. The parcel, just north of Mazomanie, a city of about 1,400 people, includes a naturally secluded beach that offers spectacular views of the surrounding forest and bluffs.
Droves of nudists claimed the beach as their own decades ago as word spread that the prosecutors in Dane County, perhaps the most liberal jurisdiction in the state, wouldn't go after anyone just for shedding their swimsuits. The DNR estimates as many as 70,000 people have visited the beach some summers. "It's difficult to find a place (to be nude),'' said Bob Morton, executive director of the Austin, Tex., Naturist Action Committee, which lobbies on behalf of nudists. He said he has visited the beach several times. "Being able to connect with nature is a powerful connection when you go to a place like a river. You feel a certain sense of personal freedom that you don't really get sitting in your apartment in Milwaukee.''
Wisconsin law makes "publicly and indecently'' exposing one's genitals a misdemeanor, but a succession of Dane County district attorneys have said nudists must cause some sort of disturbance before they can be prosecuted.
Their lack of action has inflamed some of the nudists' opponents. Minister Ralph Ovadal led protests at the beach.
Assembly Republicans passed a bill in 1999 to ban nudity on public land, but the measure went nowhere.
Bender, who ran a canoe rental business on the river, filed a lawsuit in 2001 to force the DNR to make beach-goers put their clothes on. She said nudists had sex around the beach, wandered onto her property and waded out into the river and exposed themselves as her customers paddled by, causing people to avoid the area and hurting her business.
The DNR countered that wardens try to curtail violations that go beyond just being naked and people can avoid the beach or look away. Dane County Circuit Judge Sarah O'Brien ultimately dismissed the suit.
While nudity may be OK, state officials say all the sex in the woods and bushes around the beach clearly crosses the line into disorderly conduct. The DNR has been trying to stop it for years to no avail.
The agency closed the area from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. and banned sandbar camping in the late 1990s. It also installed a gate blocking cars in hopes of preventing people from driving down to the shore for a quick tryst.
In 2007, wardens closed off portions of the woods flanking the road, hoping to curtail sex in the underbrush. The DNR also cut down brush along the beach's tree line to eliminate cover and wardens have taken to hiding in the woods around the beach and setting up on the bluffs across the river with telescopes, looking for lewd behavior. DNR reports tell graphic stories of wardens citing men for engaging in oral sex, mutual masturbation and
Arrests for sex and drugs around the beach hit a five-year high last year. Wardens arrested 26 people for illicit sex and 16 people for drugs in just nine days of surveillance last year, up from 11 sex arrests and three drug arrests in six days in 2007, according to DNR data.
Jeremy Plautz, the warden who supervises DNR law enforcement in Dane County, didn't have an explanation for the place's allure, pointing out the woods are full of poison ivy, nettles and mosquitoes.
By closing another 70 acres around the beach this week, Plautz said the DNR hopes to keep people on the beach itself and in full view. "Our overall goal down here is to reduce user conflicts,'' he said. "This is sort of the next step.''
As Plautz was showing reporters around the deserted beach on a gloomy April day, frequent visitor Charlie Wise stepped onto the sand. Wise, 59, of Sauk City, was fully clothed that day. He listened quietly to Plautz describe the closures, puffing on his pipe. Then he told reporters he thought the closures were a "horrible waste of taxpayers' money.'' "They keep trying to save us from ourselves,'' he said. "Every creature on this property is allowed to have sex except the people who run the property.''
DNR reports and court records show Wise was among the people cited in 2010 for sexual activity and marijuana possession near the beach.
Morton, of the Naturist Action Committee, said the beach isn't the only place where drug use and illicit sex take place. He said the problem wasn't nudists but a group of what he called "never-do-wells.'' "When we find that, we tap someone on the shoulder and say, 'Hey, not here. Get a room,''' Morton said. "Does this happen enough for the DNR? Probably not. It's not really a crackdown on us. It's a crackdown on the people we don't really want to associate with.''