Kewaunee County residents and supporters from neighboring counties braved a storm that dropped several inches of lake-effect snow to pack Knudson Hall in Algoma on Monday night, in support of extending a proposed national marine sanctuary north.
The communities of Port Washington, Sheboygan, Manitowoc and Two Rivers nominated the waters off their counties for consideration as a national marine sanctuary, and the state of Wisconsin submitted the proposal to NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries in December 2014.
It was during the public comment period for that nomination that Kewaunee County officials got wind of the idea and floated the idea of moving the northern boundary of the area north to Algoma.
A national marine sanctuary is a federally designated area within United States waters that protects areas of the marine environment with special conservation, recreational, ecological, historical, cultural, archeological, scientific, educational, or aesthetic qualities. The current proposal notes the historical significance of a number of shipwrecks in that area of Lake Michigan; 18 wrecks are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Russ Green, regional coordinator for the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, told the crowd the effort goes back to a Wisconsin Historical Society study of a decade ago.
“They looked at all of Wisconsin’s Great Lakes and sort of sized themup for the potential of a national marine sanctuary and settled on this mid-lake region as a place that had a really diverse range of ship types, and the integrity of these ships is pretty spectacular,” Green said.
The process has now moved from nomination period into designation, and the office has prepared a Draft Environmental Impact Statement and Draft Management Plan that is itself in the comment period. The public hearing Monday night was the first of four to be held this week – Tuesday in Manitowoc, Wednesday in Sheboygan and Thursday in Port Washington – and written public comments are being taken through the end of the month.
Green said the designation would prohibit anchoring on all historic shipwreck sites – or perhaps all shipwrecks, period – with mooring buoys installed at the more significant sites so boaters and divers could anchor safely.
“You want people to come and enjoy these places and do it responsibly, so shipwreck mooring buoys would be a key way to do this,” Green said. “That dovetails very well with heritage tourism.”
Green conceded that NOAA’s preferred alternative is still to designate only the three original counties, but the agency is now floating a second boundary alternative that includes Kewaunee County. All of the more than a dozen speakers at the public hearing favored that alternative.
County Board Supervisor Lee Luft said the full house on a stormy night was “critically important” to convincing the federal government to change its original plan.
“Kewaunee County at least being considered as an alternative – that is wonderful news,” Luft said, and he presented the agency with a packet that included letters of support from U.S. Sens. Ron Johnson and Tammy Baldwin, U.S. Rep. Mike Gallagher, former Rep. Reid Ribble, state Rep. Joel Kitchens, and Sen. Frank Lasee.
Other speakers reflected Luft’s enthusiasm.
“We are excited about the educational, recreational and economic opportunities a marine sanctuary designation would bring to our region,” said John Pavlik of Friends of Crescent Beach in Algoma. “We believe our unique ecological, cultural and recreational resources merit a national marine sanctuary designation.”
“We’re very grateful for the contributions that the people who were on those schooners made to the development of this area of the state along the lakeshore,” said Jeff Wiswell, Algoma city administrator. “So that’s the No. 1 thing we’re doing, we’re here to honor them.”
William Iwen called the potential designation a unique, beautiful opportunity.
“It will increase stewardship of Lake Michigan, it will enhance the cultural awareness of Lake Michigan, Algoma, Kewaunee and the whole county. It will increase tourism opportunities,” Iwen said. “It’ll increase education opportunities for now and for future generations. It’ll add a level of protection to the world’s most valuable resource, the fresh water sea or I’ve heard it called the sweet water sea.
Some supporters added concerns about the proposal’s regulatory impact. Active fisherman Kevin Naze said he’s heard from sport and commercial anglers concerned there will be too much federal oversight of the fishery.
“They would like to see some assurances, something written, that you’re not going to infringe on any fishing in the future,” said Naze, who has publicly supported the plan.
Tom Rayburn, director of environmental and regulatory affairs for the Lake Carriers Association, said shipping companies support the designation but have concerns about boundary delineations and restrictions that might affect ports, shipping channels and approaches.
Comments can be made online at the federal eRulemaking portal, www.regulations.gov. In the search window, type NOAA-NOS-2016-0150 and click the “Comment Now!” icon.
Or comments may be mailed by March 31 to Russ Green, regional coordinator/NOAA Office of National Marine Sanctuaries/University of Wisconsin-Sheboygan/One University Drive/Sheboygan, WI 53081.
Support The Kewaunee County Comet with a voluntary monthly subscription via Patreon. C.J. Townsend contributed to this report.