City, County Support Idea of National Estuarine Research Reserve

Both the Door County of Board of Supervisors and the Sturgeon Bay Common Council recently supported, through resolution, the establishment of a National Estuarine Research Reserve (NERR) for the Green Bay watershed.

If approved, it would become the 30th such reserve in the National Estuarine Research Reserve System, which is a partnership between the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and coastal states to study and protect vital coastal and estuarine resources.

The reserves are protected for research, water quality and habitat monitoring, education, and coastal stewardship, with funding, guidance and technical assistance from NOAA. The reserve itself is managed by a state agency or university. In this case, the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay is taking the lead.

Of the 29 established reserves, only two are not associated with ocean states: Old Woman Creek National Estuarine Research Reserve in Ohio, which at 573 acres is the smallest in the system; and the Lake Superior National Estuarine Research Reserve headquartered in Superior, Wis., which encompasses 16,697 acres.

The idea to establish a third Great Lakes NERR, in the Green Bay watershed, grew out of some casual conversations in 2015 about the needs of researchers.

Caitlin Oleson, who is leading the effort locally, said those conversations included Mike Grimm of the Nature Conservancy and Val Klump, dean of freshwater sciences at UW-Milwaukee, when he was here for research activities. Both organizations lamented the lack of infrastructure, including housing, for researchers and interns.

Oleson then began talking with Matt Dornbush, associate vice chancellor and interim dean of UW-GB’s Cofrin Business School; and Patrick Robinson, associate dean of agriculture and natural resources at UW-Extension, headquartered at UW-GB. Robinson had been involved in the process to land a NERR in Superior and saw parallels for the idea for the waters of Green Bay.

“The more people I spoke to, the more potential it had,” Oleson said.

Jim Schuessler, executive director of the Door County Economic Development Corporation, has also been involved in the NERR discussions – just one of several opportunities for economic-development alignment with UW-Green Bay.

“We have the potential to be one of three communities that could be directly impacted,” he said, mentioning Marinette and Green Bay as well. “UW-Green Bay is in a strong position to make this happen. Any time we can align with institutions of higher learning, that’s a positive for Door County.”

He added that landing a research center in Superior has clearly been good for that community, especially when a failed restaurant on the city’s Barker’s Island was converted to a public science and interpretive learning center and classrooms.  

Oleson received a grant from the Wisconsin Coastal Management Program through UW-GB to undertake a feasibility analysis for a research station for the waters of Green Bay.

“My work there was [in] the summer of 2016 through June of 2017,” Oleson said, adding that it involved a lot of stakeholder engagement and outreach.

Oleson, who serves on Sturgeon Bay’s Ad Hoc West Waterfront Planning Committee with Schuessler, which was formed last year to replace the Waterfront Redevelopment Authority, said the project is in its earliest stages right now, but it’s important to gain the support of governmental entities within the proposed reserve.

“Having the city council and county board supervisors pass a resolution shows that the local community is interested and supportive and that they want to see this happen for our region,” she said.

Oleson said the process to establish a NERR is a long one – from five to eight years – but she is glad at this early stage to see strong support from state and national legislators and UW-GB’s Council of Trustees.

The next step, she said, is to gain the support of Gov. Tony Evers.

“Right now, the first thing UW-Green Bay needs to really start the process is a letter from Gov. Evers to NOAA saying UW-GB is interested in establishing a reserve,” she said. “I think it’s pretty close to happening. The governor’s office has reached out to UW-Green Bay and is interested in learning more.”

Schuessler said the DCEDC has already sent a letter to Evers in support of establishing a Green Bay watershed NERR.

At the Feb. 26 county board meeting at which the resolution was unanimously approved, Supervisor Richard Virlee pointed out that the resolution states no fiscal impact to the county, but, he wondered, what about in the future?

County Administrator Ken Pabich said it will be federally funded, and although there should be no cost to the county, there is a potential for economic impact with a research facility in the community.

Supervisor Jon Koch asked if by going into this, there would be any loss of control of fisheries or anything else. Pabich said it’s pure research, which, he added, could ultimately lead to rule changes, but that all depends on the research.

Supervisor Bob Bultman said this is “a great opportunity for us to continue to shine” and pointed out that this region has globally significant habitat that includes the Niagara Escarpment and the mouth of the Fox River: one of the largest freshwater estuaries on earth. “That’s a big deal,” he said. “We’re a part of that.”

If the idea advances, there will be a selection process for locating the research center. Supervisor Helen Bacon said “Sturgeon Bay feels it is in a good position to be the location for this.”