Wisconsin site of proposed national marine sanctuary

The Wisconsin Gazette

During the Our Ocean Conference in Valparaiso, Chile, President Barack Obama announced that, for the first time since 2000, two new national marine sanctuaries — one of them in Wisconsin — have been identified by NOAA for possible designation under the National Marine Sanctuaries Act.

NOAA is now seeking comment on the proposals.

In Wisconsin, an 875-square mile area of Lake Michigan, with waters extending from Port Washington to Two Rivers, received tremendous support from the community and was identified for possible designation. The nominated area contains a collection of 39 known shipwrecks, 15 of which are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Mallows Bay in Maryland is a 14-square mile area of the tidal Potomac River, adjacent to Charles County. Nearly 200 vessels spanning from the Revolutionary War through the present are found in the area, including the remains of the largest “Ghost Fleet” of World War I wooden steamships built for the U.S. Emergency Fleet, which are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Both sites were nominated as a national marine sanctuary through the sanctuary nomination process with broad community support.

“For the first time in twenty years, communities can bring forth proposals for consideration to be added to our nation’s system of marine sanctuaries,” said Holly Bamford, assistant NOAA administrator for the National Ocean Service performing the duties of the assistant secretary of commerce for conservation and management. “The Mallows Bay-Potomac River and Wisconsin-Lake Michigan nominations demonstrate this new bottom-up approach, which ensures communities lead in identifying and protecting their valuable coastal and marine areas. We look forward to hearing from the public as these two nominations go through the process.” 

Wisconsin Sea Grant welcomed Obama’s announcement.

The Wisconsin sanctuary is currently on a so-called inventory list and now heads into a more intensive public comment period and scoping, preparation of an environmental impact statement and a management plan. Once those processes are complete, the clock would start ticking toward official designation. The timeframe for those actions is not fully known but could range from months to a year. If successful, Wisconsin would host only one of 14 National Marine Sanctuaries and only the second one in fresh water. 

Since the 1990s, WSG has supported maritime explorations in the area through grant funding in collaboration with the Wisconsin Historical Society’s maritime archeology program.

“Wisconsin has a rich maritime heritage and an equally rich legacy of preserving that heritage,” said Jim Hurley, WSG’s director. “We are thrilled the national panel looking at siting the newest sanctuary has chosen the Great Lakes to move forward. It means continued historic preservation, along with tourism for an important area of the state and highlights an important ecosystem.” 

Marine sanctuaries are now found in Lake Huron, the Pacific and Atlantic oceans and touch states such as Hawaii, Texas, California and Massachusetts.

Sanctuaries are established to protect natural and cultural features while allowing people to use and enjoy the waters in a sustainable way. No disruption of commercial or recreational activities occurs. Sanctuary waters provide a secure habitat for species close to extinction and protect historically significant shipwrecks and artifacts. Sanctuaries also serve as natural classrooms and laboratories. 

Wisconsin applied for the sanctuary designation in December 2014 and competed against four other proposed locations. After an initial screening, Wisconsin and the site on the Potomac River emerged as the strongest applicants.

The sanctuary’s application reads, in part, “The proposed Wisconsin sanctuary encompasses a key portion of an early transportation corridor that was critical to the expansion of the United States and the development of the agricultural and the industrial core of the nation.”

U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, a member of the Senate Great Lakes Task Force, said on Oct. 5,“The Great Lakes are a great asset for our quality of life in Wisconsin and also for our long term economic security. “I’m proud to join Wisconsin stakeholders, who have worked tirelessly on this effort, in applauding this major announcement that will protect and preserve some of Wisconsin’s most treasured places and boost our local tourism economy. I am committed to continuing my work carrying on the strong Wisconsin tradition of protecting our Great Lakes.” 

As a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Baldwin has advocated for additional funding for the National Marine Sanctuaries program in order to help Wisconsin establish the Lake Michigan National Sanctuary.

She also joined Michigan Sens. Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters to introduce the Great Lakes Maritime Heritage Assessment Act of 2015, which would require NOAA to review maritime heritage resources in the Great Lakes and suggest areas worthy of designation.