Kewaunee County Wants to Be Considered in Marine Sanctuary Designation

Kewaunee County Supervisor Lee Luft is taking the lead in having Kewaunee County included in plans the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has for creating a national marine sanctuary along the Lake Michigan coastline.

NOAA currently administers 13 national marine sanctuaries from the Pacific water of American Samoa to the north Atlantic. The agency is now considering the addition of the Lake Michigan sanctuary and a 52-square-mile piece of the Potomac River in Maryland.

Tamara Thomsen

An exciting recreational opportunity, a diver swims above the two-masted schooner Walter B. Allen, sunk in 1880. Photo by Tamara Thomsen, Wisconsin Historical Society.

Sanctuary status is granted to preserve and promote history through shipwrecks. The Maryland site is known to have more than 100 shipwrecks dating from the Revolutionary War through modern times.

When NOAA first announced plans for a Lake Michigan marine sanctuary, the concept spanned the coastlines of three counties – Ozaukee, Sheboygan and Manitowoc – and included a 1,075-square mile area. That territory includes 37 known shipwrecks and potentially 80 more not yet found. Eighteen of those known shipwrecks are on the National Register of Historic Places.

The three-county site is known as Alternative A. Since then, the NOAA has created Alternative B, which includes Kewaunee County.

“Apparently we’re still not the preferred option, but at least we’re being considered, and that’s a long way from where we were a year ago, when there was literally no consideration for Kewaunee County,” Luft said. “My thought was if we could muster some substantial support for inclusion of Kewaunee County, especially given the number of shipwrecks we have right off our coast, some of them on the National Historic Register.”

Lee Luft

Lee Luft

Luft will present information on the marine sanctuary proposal at a meeting for the public at 7 pm Monday, Feb. 20, at Algoma City Hall, 416 Fremont St. That meeting is a prelude to a meeting to be held by NOAA officials in Algoma on March 13.

“The idea is that we want to let people know what is happening and that there is going to be a subsequent meeting just a few weeks down the road on March 13 [also in Algoma],” Luft said. “Your attendance at that meeting is very important to NOAA to understand if there is community support for this kind of a project.”

Luft said he attended an initial meeting last year in Manitowoc and said it was well attended with representatives from all facets of the community – business, government, education and the public.

“You could see the folks from NOAA were extremely gratified with the turnout,” Luft said, adding that a similar turnout on March 13 could help put over the idea of Kewaunee County’s inclusion.

Luft advises that Door County residents interested in the sanctuary designation should also attend the meetings.

“My thrust to the NOAA people has been, at some point you will also want to consider Door County, given the extensive dive sites off of Door County’s coastline, up to and including Washington Island and Rock Island,” he said. “If we can be part of this now, it makes that inclusion going forward of Door County even more likely.”

Wisconsin Historical Society

Bound for Chicago with a hold full of Christmas trees, the Rouse Simmons (also known as “The Christmas Tree Ship”) was lost with all hands in a November gale in 1912. Photo courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Society.

Luft inquired of Russ Green, NOAA’s regional coordinator for the sanctuary, why the designation stopped short of Kewaunee and its rich maritime history.

Green said it was simply because representatives from Alternative A nominated the three counties.

“But as you and others have pointed out, Kewaunee County has many of the same attributes,” Green said in an email to Luft. “In fact, we heard this during the public scoping meetings, so we included it in the draft environmental impact statement as Alternative B. Part of our thinking in doing so was to establish the fact that some stakeholders are very interested in having Kewaunee included. Having the four-county area analyzed in the proposal documents may make it easier to expand the sanctuary boundaries in future (as was done in Thunder Bay in 2014).”

The Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary is the only sanctuary in the Great Lakes. It encompassed 448 square miles when first designated in October 2000, but has since been expanded to include 4,300 square miles.

“All that said, the public comment period currently underway is designed for NOAA to get input on the subject you’ve raised, so we look forward to hearing from folks interested in the four-county alternative,” Green wrote.

One of those folks interested in the four-county alternative is former Door County Maritime Museum Executive Director and retired coast Guard Captain Robert Desh.

“I was involved in the early discussions of the possibility of creating a second marine sanctuary on the Great Lakes,” Desh said. “As you can imagine, I believe the Wisconsin shore of Lake Michigan is the ideal place for the sanctuary. In my early meetings with the NOAA folks, I pressed for extending the northern limit of the sanctuary to at least the entrance of the Sturgeon Bay Ship Canal. As a retired Coast Guard officer who has been involved in the political realities of such a project, I quickly understood the limitations and requirements that challenged NOAA and the support, or non-support, they were facing from the State of Wisconsin and the folks in Madison. I quickly retreated to a position of ensuring that the northern limit at least include the historic ports on the southern end of the Door Peninsula, aka the Kewaunee County end. As painful as it may be for my Door County friends to admit, the Door Peninsula does not start at the Door County line.”

Tamara Thomsen

Lake Michigan’s cold, fresh water has kept the steamer Vernon and much of its cargo virtually intact since its sinking in 1887 with the loss of 48 lives. Photo by Tamara Thomsen, Wisconsin Historical Society.

Knowing he would be unable to make the March 13 meeting, Desh sent a letter in support of pursuing the Kewaunee County option.

“As I indicate in my letter, in my opinion, arbitrarily stopping the sanctuary at the Kewaunee County line does great injustice to the extraordinary maritime history of the lower portion of the Door Peninsula and the importance that the ports of Kewaunee and Algoma played in the development of the region in the days of sail and steam,” Desh said. “I would strongly encourage everyone to attend the meeting on March 13 and loudly champion extending the northern limit of the sanctuary to Algoma. It will be a good thing for both Door and Kewaunee counties. More importantly, it will ensure the protection, preservation and celebration of the maritime history of the Door Peninsula.”

Congressman Mike Gallagher has also expressed his support for the Kewaunee County option in a Jan. 17 letter to Russ Green. “I firmly believe the Lake Michigan National Marine Sanctuary would be incomplete without inclusion of the Kewaunee County shoreline,” Gallagher wrote. “Out of respect to those who lost their lives in the shipwrecks, we most honor these historical national treasures.”

You can submit comments about the proposed sanctuary electronically or via mail through March 31. Details are available at