Officials plan campaign to save NOAA sanctuary

Leaders of lakefront cities scramble to muster public pressure in response to Walker’s surprise rejection
By 
KRISTYN HALBIG ZIEHM
Ozaukee Press staff

Officials from four lakefront communities — including Port Washington — are hoping to mobilize the public and open talks with Gov. Scott Walker in an attempt to resume the process of creating a marine sanctuary along the Lake Michigan Coast from Ozaukee County north to Two Rivers.

Walker last week stunned officials with his announcement he was withdrawing the state’s application for the sanctuary, citing regulatory issues.

“We  have come too far to turn back, worked too hard to just accept a surprise announcement that ‘it’s over,’” officials from Port, Sheboygan, Manitowoc and Two Rivers said in a letter, noting that the proposal has met with significant public interest and support. 

Walker, they noted, had not reached out to them to address his concerns about the proposed sanctuary, and they hope to have the chance to talk about the issues with him.

Port Washington Tourism Council Executive Director Kathy Tank said the focus now is on getting Walker to leave the door open to the possibility of a sanctuary.

“Let’s not consider this as closed door,” she said. “Let’s consider it an open door, let’s address your concerns and see where that leads.”

Officials believe approval of the sanctuary was just months away from approval, something Walker’s announcement stops in its tracks.

“This really sudden, 180-degree pivot from his past, consistent support took everyone by surprise,” Tank said, noting Walker had made a strong statement that the sanctuary was a great thing for the entire state when nominating the area for the sanctuary designation four years ago.

Just a week before Walker’s decision, local officials had written to thank the governor for his support and seek a meeting to discuss the sanctuary proposal and its impact — a letter than went unanswered. 

“What this really feels like is a rebuke and disregard for all the local community support and the investment that’s been made,” Tank said, adding that the sanctuary proposal came from local government, with a significant amount of public support.

 “This has been a bottom’s up process,” she said, noting the communities have been working toward getting the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to designate the area as a national shipwreck sanctuary for eight years — the application for the sanctuary was submitted to the agency in 2014 — touting benefits that range from increased tourism to increased protection of the many wrecks along the coastline.

Port Washington City Administrator Mark Grams called Walker’s decision “disappointing.”

“To me, it smells of political maneuvering,” Grams said. “It’s unfortunate.”

Tank said Walker was likely influenced by a “small but pretty vocal and persistent group of people who have been against the nomination,” many of them lakeshore property owners.

“They have been convinced they will lose the right to their lakefront property,” she said. “None of that is true. You don’t lose your personal property rights.”

They were concerned about the use of the ordinary high water mark as a boundary instead of the current lake level, she noted, but this is the same boundary used by the State of Wisconsin for its protection.

“The state has had this boundary for years and it hasn’t taken anybody’s property rights away,” Tank said.

Grams agreed, saying the opponents feared that “anybody could trample on their land.”

“They were told it wasn’t going to happen,” he said. “It’s a made-up objection.”

In his letter rescinding the nomination, Walker said he believes the state is doing an adequate job protecting the shipwrecks off its coast and adding more regulations is not in the best interest of the state.

“We believe this designation would create further unnecessary bureaucratic red tape,” he wrote, adding the designation would not bring additional resources and only create more red tape. 

“The addition of a new level of government for citizens to petition for permits and certifications for normal use of Lake Michigan is too much of a trade off for the negligible benefit to protecting shipwrecks.

“Wisconsin has and will continue to protect our submerged cultural resources.”

Keeley Belva, a spokesman for NOAA, said the agency has reviewed Walker’s letter is considering its next steps.

Even as the communities are reeling, opponents of the sanctuary are pleased with Walker’s decision.

“I don’t feel NOAA would add anything to protect the shipwrecks,” said Jane Hamilton. “They’re already protected. Divers have access.” 

The many benefits of the sanctuary touted by officials — increased research and educational programs, cooperative programs between the communities — can occur without the designation, Hamilton said.

“Those things can all happen. All the mayors and councils and county governments and all the tourism bureaus just need to get together and do exactly what NOAA wanted to do,” she said. 

“NOAA can research the shipwrecks as much as they want. They can do all that without the sanctuary. It just seems like their taking control of 1,200 square miles of the lake was not necessary.”

NOAA, she added, promises many things that don’t necessarily become reality, such as increased tourism promised in Alpena, Mich., where the only other Great Lakes marine sanctuary is located.

Hamilton noted that Walker had sent NOAA a letter filled with questions about the sanctuary last year, and his decision not to seek the designation shows that those concerns were not adequately addressed.

But Tank said the benefits that will be lost are huge, noting that the sanctuary designation would have been akin to creating a national park in the lake.

“That’s pretty special,” she said. “This was not just about protection (for the wrecks), it was about bringing resources we don’t have to the area. That’s more the point than extra protection.”

Those resources would have brought the stories of the shipwrecks to people who otherwise would never experience or hear them, Tank said, adding the educational programs and resources would have been significant.

In Alpena, the local technical college has created an new program based on the sanctuary and high schoolers have taken part in international robotics competitions and tourism has soared, she said.

Tourism there soared with an estimate 100,000 visitors annually, something that could have happened in Wisconsin, which in turn would have boosted the local economy and downtown businesses, she said.

Tish Hase, co-owner of Port Deco Divers, agreed, noting people come to sanctuaries not just to dive but to experience the maritime history.

Walker’s decision is “a huge economic hit,” Hase said. “He’s lost my vote. This is just a huge kick in the pants. It is going to affect a lot of people ... all of Wisconsin. It’s been proven once a sanctuary has been designated, it brings jobs. It’s going to affect the hotels. This will have a trickle-down effect.

“This is a devastating blow, and it’s very sad nobody wants to preserve the history down below.”

NOAA was planning to place buoys at the shipwreck sites that would have helped preserve the sunken boats from additional damage, Hase said.

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Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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