Port cheers new life for marine sanctuary plan

Evers resurrects proposal for federal shipwreck preserve that proponents say will bring economic, educational opportunities

A MARITIME ARCHEOLOGIST dove on the wreck of the Northerner, which is resting in about 140 feet of water near Port Washington in what could become a national marine sanctuary. The two-masted schooner filled with water and capsized southeast of Port Washington while being towed to Milwaukee on Nov. 29, 1868. The wreck is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Photo by Tamara Thomsen, Wisconsin Historical Society
Ozaukee Press staff

Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers’ announcement Friday that he had reinstated the state’s nomination for a national marine sanctuary that will stretch from Port Washington north to Algoma was lauded this week by local officials.

They praised Evers’ action as an act of statesmanship and compromise, noting the governor reached out to opponents of the proposal and tweaked the plan to alleviate their concerns.

They also heralded the potential impact of the shipwreck sanctuary on everything from education to tourism to historical preservation, saying the benefits reach beyond the communities along the lakeshore to the state as a whole.

“I could not be more ecstatic, not just for Port but for all the communities and for the State of Wisconsin,” former Port Washington Mayor Tom Mlada, a longtime supporter of the sanctuary, said. “I think the governor recognized this is too extraordinary an opportunity to pass up.

“This really presents us with an incredible way to have a sustainable impact,” Mlada, who is the executive director of the Lakeshore Natural Resource Partnership, added. “You start thinking about what we’re doing for the next generation —we’re leaving them something very special. I don’t believe in our lifetime we’re going to realize all the opportunities, all the benefits, of this.”

Port Mayor Marty Becker said he, too, is excited by the governor’s actions and the potential impact of the sanctuary.

“I think this is really great,” he said, especially the effect it could have on tourism and education. 

“I was impressed with the governor and the process. He made it a non-partisan thing,” Becker said. “He talked to both sides, came up with a compromise and got it done.”

In reversing former Gov. Scott Walker’s abrupt decision to withdraw the state’s application for the sanctuary, Evers has paved the way for the sanctuary to become reality within the next two or three months, Kathy Tank, executive director of the Port Washington Tourism Council, said.

“This is going to put us on the map,” she said. “It’s very exciting. This will bring an injection of federal resources that will allow us to expand educational opportunities, research opportunities and tourism.”

The sanctuary will also provide additional protections for the shipwrecks by providing such things as mooring buoys so divers won’t anchor on the wrecks and damage them, Tank said.

In addition, the sanctuary will help increase the partnerships between communities along the Lake Michigan coast and the state and federal governments, she said.

But the main impact, she said, is in education, not just of schoolchildren but of adults as well.

“That’s really what this is about, bringing the history to the people of Wisconsin,” she said. “Very few of us are divers, and we will never see these shipwrecks.

“These wrecks represent the development of our state — ships brought people and commerce and all sorts of things to the state. This will bring those stories to us all.”

If approved, the proposed sanctuary would be the second on the Great Lakes — the other one is Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary and Great Lakes Maritime Heritage Center on Lake Huron in Alpena, Mich.

Evers made his announcement to enthusiastic applause during a press conference at the Manitowoc Maritime Museum, noting that Wisconsin has “a strong tradition of protecting natural resources and preserving our history. The ships that are scattered along the lake help tell the story of Wisconsin.”

In his letter to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration offering the state’s “renewed support” for the designation of a sanctuary, Evers noted that there are more than 30 known wrecks and many undiscovered shipwrecks within its boundaries.

In addition to preserving the state’s maritime heritage, he said, the sanctuary would expand tourism initiatives, promote stewardship of the largest freshwater system in the world and enhance both educational programs and Wisconsin’s reputation as a national leader in freshwater sciences.

U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, a supporter of the sanctuary, said the designation would also ensure the Lake Michigan coast gets the recognition it deserves.

As a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, she has pushed for funding to ensure NOAA has the resources needed to support the development of the sanctuary, Evers said in a press release.

Although communities along the lakeshore have been talking about a proposed sanctuary as far back as 2009, work on the proposal began in earnest in 2014 and continued until Walker withdrew the application for the sanctuary in March 2018 in light of concerns by some residents about a potential loss of property rights — at a time when the sanctuary was believed to be just months from approval by the federal government.

Officials then urged the governor not to close the door on the sanctuary, and after Evers was elected continued their efforts to resurrect the proposal.

Tank said Evers sat down repeatedly with opponents of the sanctuary proposal, listened to their concerns and took action to alleviate them by tweaking the borders of the sanctuary.

Instead of running from Mequon to Two Rivers, the sanctuary would now go from Port Washington to Algoma — removing Mequon was a request by the Mequon Common Council, Tank said — and instead of running to the ordinary high water mark would instead go to the low water mark.

“One of the main things people opposed to the sanctuary were worried about was that it would impact their riparian rights,” Tank said.

The changes made to the sanctuary plan by Evers to allay these concerns are not significant enough to set back the process, she added.

“We’re picking up right where we left off (when Walker withdrew the state’s support),” Tank said.  

Even though the sanctuary hasn’t been approved, Tank said, the mere fact it was proposed has already benefitted the area. Communities along the lakeshore are talking about creating a maritime heritage trail and looking at ways to partner on other initiatives.


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Ozaukee Press

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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