Serving Gogebic, Iron and Ontonagon Counties

Group explores possibilities for sanctuary on Lake Superior


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Hurley — The Iron County Citizen’s Forum hosted an informational meeting last week to discuss an ongoing effort to establish a National Marine Sanctuary on Lake Superior.

Driven so far primarily by advocates in the Bayfield and Ashland region, the Dec. 15 meeting at the Iron County Courthouse provided an opportunity to gauge support in the county for the project.

While the exact parameters of the proposed sanctuary are far from established, discussions centered around a region between the Apostle Islands and Saxon Harbor.

The meeting began with a brief introduction from those who are spearheading the effort so far, before the floor was turned over to Ellen Brody, the regional coordinator for the Great Lakes and Northeast region for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Brody explained both what a marine sanctuary was and the process for establishing one, as well as discussed the only existing sanctuary on the Great Lakes is Lake Huron’s Thunder Bay off the coast of Alpena.

“Sanctuaries are areas of the oceans and Great Lakes that protect some of our most spectacular, and nationally significant resources,” Brody said. “What they aren’t are areas people are automatically excluded from doing the kinds of activities they are accustomed to doing, like fishing or diving.”

There are 13 national marine sanctuaries and two marine national monuments in the world, Brody said, with each sanctuary created to best suit its specific location.

“One important takeaway message is that NOAA doesn’t come into an area and say ‘we have sanctuaries and we’re plopping this down in your community and this is how we do it.’ Each sanctuary is really tailored to the resources that are significant, looking at who’s involved in managing these areas, who’s involved in the education programs, and designing a sanctuary that best fits that area,” Brody said.

She discussed some of the benefits for the area surrounding a marine sanctuary; including the establishment of a strong underwater robotics program in the Alpena schools, the building of some form of education center as education is one of the primary purposes of the sanctuaries.

The economic benefits vary depending on the sanctuary, Brody said, although the sanctuaries do generally establish tourism destinations in the region.

“In the lower peninsula, you have the Traverse City area, which is where people go — that’s where the tourists go — and then you have northeastern Michigan, where Alpena is. Nobody used to go there. It’s 100 miles from the nearest interstate and why would anybody want to go there, and that has changed,” Brody said.

She made clear that other than some minor regulations, such as not being allowed to remove items from shipwrecks or doing anything that could otherwise permanently damage the wrecks, most activities were allowed within the sanctuaries.

Brody also explained the process for creating a sanctuary.

The process for creating sanctuaries has recently changed from a panel of experts picking potential sites, to allowing communities to nominate areas as candidates for sanctuary status.

She made clear the process was a lengthy one and could take several years.

There were four general criteria that nominators had to prove, Brody said, including demonstrating the presence of nationally significant resources present, community support for the project and partnership opportunities with area research and education groups.

If the criteria were met, Brody said the proposed sanctuary got added to a site-evaluation list that NOAA chooses new sanctuaries from.

“When you get onto the (list), it doesn’t mean for sure that we will take the next step and do a sanctuary designation,” Brody cautioned.

Following Brody’s presentation, representatives from the Cheqaumegon Bay spoke about the range they envisioned for the project.

It’s still too early in the process to talk about the exact size of the proposed sanctuary, but it could be as large as stretching between Saxon Harbor and Port Wing, to something more limited in the Ashland, Washburn and Bayfield area.

“Our resources certainly include the 65 known shipwrecks down there that have been identified by the historical society, it also includes the mussel bed that we have just heard about off of ... Long Island, the 5 to 6,000 year old sunken forest off of Madeline Island, the 400-plus foot trench that has the over 40 species of fish that are the pure ancestral stock that feed the entire lake,” said Erica Peterson, a member of the citizen planning committee working on completing the nomination application.

Peterson also mentioned the Cheqaumegon Bay fishery and the region’s history of native settlement and the fur trade when discussing the significance of the area.

While the Cheqaumegon Bay-area residents have been the driving force behind the effort so far, several Iron County residents discussed how they could contribute.

“I don’t want it to sound as though Iron County is the poor cousin that wants to ride your coattails. Because we have some really dynamic partnerships to offer you, our education system ... has environmental education you can’t believe,” said county supervisor Brad Mattson. “Our extension office, as you guys know, is excellent.

“Yes, we’re looking for opportunity, growth and retention and attracting people here — but we think we’d have a lot to offer,” Mattson said, adding he didn’t want Iron County to be included in the project out of sympathy or as a charity case. “As you move forward, reach out to us and we’ll be happy to get involved in some of your planning processes.”

Will Andresen, with the county’s University of Wisconsin Extension Office, also pointed out a marine-sanctuary designation would likely help Iron County score higher on its recreation and tourism grant applications, in addition to being a tourism draw.

“I think this builds right into (the county’s efforts to utilize its natural resources and trail system more) in a real strong way,” Andresen said.

“Visitors don’t look at boundaries, entrepreneurs don’t look at boundaries, it doesn’t mean anything to them. If we can connect our name to the Apostle Islands and the sea caves, and if they can connect their name to our waterfalls and our snowfall, that’s synergistic and it helps everybody,” he added.

The meeting concluded with an informal consensus to continue to communicate on the project as it moves forward.

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