Sturgeon Bay Committee Updated on NERR Designation Process

Sturgeon Bay and two other areas in Door County are among nine natural areas that are candidates for inclusion within a National Estuarine Research Reserve (NERR) planned for the Bay of Green Bay region.

Sturgeon Bay’s Ad Hoc NERR Advisory Committee met May 13 to review the ongoing process to designate, by the end of 2024, one or more areas to study and protect estuarine systems.

The Bay of Green Bay region is being established as the 31st NERR in the nation. The 30 reserves already existing in the United States were established through the Coastal Management Zone Act and are a partnership between the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and coastal states. NOAA provides funding and national guidance for each site, which is managed by a lead state agency or university with input from local partners. 

The nine areas that are currently candidates for the NERR include the three in Door County – Sturgeon Bay, Chambers Island and what’s referred to as the Islands Complex on the tip of the peninsula – with five of the six others along the west shore of the Bay of Green Bay.

As currently proposed, the NERR site for Sturgeon Bay is located south of Highway 42/57 and includes 655.8 acres. Of those, 425.6 acres are part of Door County Land Trust; 108.7 acres are at Crossroads at Big Creek; 102 acres are Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources property; and 19.5 acres belong to the Sturgeon Bay School District.

Mark Holey, committee co-chair, summarized an update on the site-selection process presented earlier this month in webinars provided by the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, which is leading the effort to locate a NERR in the region.

Holey said the NERR site-selection criteria are taking into account a disturbance gradient from “minimally impacted habitats to recently restored – basically they’re talking about Door County versus Fox River,” as well as a north-to-south gradient in the Bay of Green Bay that encompasses “highly polluted to not so polluted.”

Holey said the process to designate a Bay of Green Bay NERR is about a third of the way through.

“Once we get through the site-selection process, so we know what the properties are, then a draft environmental impact statement will have to be created, or at least drafted and then finalized,” he said.

The NERR’s Site Evaluation Committee is expected to visit Crossroads at Big Creek on June 1 as part of visiting all nine NERR-candidate sites.

In conjunction with the search for natural areas that would define the NERR boundaries, Sturgeon Bay is competing for a visitor/education center that would be constructed along with the designation. In March, the Sturgeon Bay Common Council identified land at Sunset Park and the Yacht Club property as possible locations for that center. At that time, the city was also querying owners of other sites, including privately owned property near Martin Park and the former vacant Younkers building at 56 N. 4th Ave. that’s owned by the County of Door.

The NERR timeline calls for the selection process for the visitor center to take place in 2023 and 2024.

Laurel Hauser of Crossroads at Big Creek, who is also on the city’s ad hoc committee, said if Crossroads provided some space for a lab or possibly housing, “that might make it seem like a visitor center makes a little sense in that place, too.”

Ad Hoc Committee co-chair Caitlin Oleson said the NERR’s state-federal partnership involves the state matching 30% of the operational budget with 70% federal funding.