Sturgeon Bay Recommended among Areas for Research Reserve

Property in the Sturgeon Bay area is part of 11,494 land acres being recommended for inclusion in the proposed Bay of Green Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve (NERR).

In the Sturgeon Bay area, land located south of the Highway 42/57 corridor on both sides of the shipping channel includes fewer than 700 total acres made up of property owned by Crossroads at Big Creek, Door County Land Trust, the Sturgeon Bay School District and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

Land in Sturgeon Bay being recommended as part of the proposed bay of Green Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve (NERR) includes property owned by Crossroads at Big Creek (in aqua), Door County Land Trust (lime green), the Sturgeon Bay School District (salmon) and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (green). Source: UW-Green Bay.

Sturgeon Bay is one of three areas receiving preliminary recommendation for the NERR, along with areas in Peshtigo and the Lower Bay. They were part of nine candidate areas under consideration for designation in the NERR.

Sturgeon Bay Mayor David Ward said the preliminary recommendation of Sturgeon Bay being included in the NERR is “a good first step. We also want the visitor center here.”

The City of Sturgeon Bay formed its own ad hoc NERR Advisory Committee related to the research reserve. Selection of the NERR education and visitor center location is not expected until 2023-24.

Laurel Hauser, a committee member who is also executive director at Crossroads at Big Creek, said the preliminary recommendation of Sturgeon Bay’s inclusion is welcome news for Crossroads’ research and monitoring programs.

“We will now be part of a broader system,” she said.

Though Crossroads is currently involved in education and has been suggested as a possible location for the visitor center, Hauser said she believes the selection of the NERR natural areas is unrelated to the visitor center, which could end up being located outside of those natural areas.

Door County Land Trust (DCLT) Executive Director Emily Wood said DCLT “has been very interested in the prospect of including Sturgeon Bay as a NERR research site. We already know that the land we protect at the Sturgeon Bay Ship Canal Nature Preserve is an ecological gem that hosts several rare or endangered plant and wildlife species. The NERR could attract top researchers and scientists to help us have a broader understanding of the watershed and its threats. DCLT is hopeful that Sturgeon Bay’s unique waters and landscape will make it a very competitive site for selection.”

NERR Timeline Extends through 2024 

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 partnerships 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. For the Bay of Green Bay NERR, the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay is leading the designation process. 

The preliminary recommendation for the Bay of Green Bay NERR was discussed during public meetings Sept. 7-8 at UW-Green Bay.

The Nature Conservancy’s Nicole Van Helden, who chairs the Bay of Green Bay NERR’s site-evaluation committee, said committee subteams ranked the nine candidate sites based on five categories: environmental representativeness; research, monitoring and resource protection; education; land management; and resilience to climate change.

Van Helden said Peshtigo and the Southwest Shore – which was combined with Point au Sable as the Lower Bay area – included each of the five subteams’ top choices for the NERR.

She said the full committee agreed not to have only one site for the NERR, which had to include the Peshtigo and Southwest Shore complex.

Van Helden said the committee added Sturgeon Bay as a third site after doing an analysis of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats.

“If we propose a NERR site for natural areas of Peshtigo and the Southwest Shore, what are we missing?” she said.

Van Helden said representation of the Bay of Green Bay’s east shore was missing with those two sites, which led to Point au Sable being added to the Southwest Shore to form the Lower Bay area.

“[Point au Sable] doesn’t feel like a third site,” she said. “It’s kind of a continuation of the Southwest Shore site.”

Van Helden said the committee added Sturgeon Bay as a third site because it adds east-shore representation of the estuary; adds more complete water-circulation patterns up the east shore; provides opportunity for outreach, education and stewardship to Door County visitors, citizens and students; adds partners and access points; captures additional unique environmental features, such as habitat and threatened species; and adds shorter river systems with different geology at Strawberry Creek and Big Creek.

“With those three sites in mind, sort of this new Lower Bay complex, the Peshtigo River complex and the Sturgeon Bay complex, we felt like [these were] the right sites to recommend,” she said. “This is our preliminary recommended site for the natural areas of the Green Bay NERR. We felt like this captured all of the criteria as best we could.”

Emily Tyner, director of freshwater strategy at UW-Green Bay, said the subsequent steps in the site-selection process included accepting public comments through Sept. 15, the site-evaluation committee considering the public comments and then making a final recommendation to the site-coordination committee the week of Sept. 19. 

The site-coordination committee will vote on the recommended site the week of Sept. 26 and will have subsequent conversations with relevant land managers and delineate the NERR boundary in early October. A site-nomination document will be sent to the governor’s office in late October.

Bridget Faust-Accola of NOAA’s Office of Coastal Management said the site-nomination document takes three to four months on average to review.

“Ultimately, NOAA will make a decision,” she said. “We’ll either decide to accept, reject or modify the nomination.”

Faust-Accola said site selection and nomination is the second step of a six-step process for the NERR. That timeline includes preparing an environmental impact statement with NOAA in 2023, selecting a NERR education and visitor center site, writing a NERR management plan in 2023 and 2024, and designating a NERR area at the end of 2024.