UW-GB Official Sees Great Potential in Proposed NERR

Matt Dornbush has an acronym that sums up the benefits of a proposed National Estuarine Research Reserve (NERR) for the waters of Green Bay.

It’s REST, which stands for Research, Education, Stewardship and Training. Although research is the primary focus of the 29 established NERRs across the country, Dornbush – who’s an associate vice chancellor and interim dean of the Cofrin School of Business at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay – sees this is an opportunity to reconnect people with the water (education), address pollution challenges (stewardship) and introduce citizen science-based programs to the region (training).

“This is a great example of when the university is connected with the community, the types of things that can happen,” he said of UW-GB leading the effort to establish a NERR in the region.

Last week the Pulse reported that both the City of Sturgeon Bay and the Door County Board of Supervisors had approved resolutions in support of establishing a NERR in this region. NERRs are a partnership between the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and coastal states to study and protect coastal and estuarine resources.

“The bay, this estuary, there’s nowhere else in the world like this,” Dornbush said. “This is a signature that no one else can steal from us. This is our identity, and we’ve got to capitalize on that. If we got one of these sites, we would be the NERR for Lake Michigan and Huron combined. It would serve as a leader for two of the Great Lakes. That’s a pretty exciting thing – clearly from the university’s standpoint as well as the region.”

Although his titles at the university don’t indicate it, Dornbush’s background is in environmental science, particularly in native-plant restoration. When he joined the UW-GB faculty in 2005, he couldn’t help noticing how disconnected the city – and the university campus – are from the waters of Green Bay.

“There’s really not much public access to the bay, especially in the city of Green Bay,” he said. “One of the greatest natural resources on the planet, and [there are] no swim beaches in the Green Bay metropolitan area, very few boat launches. The way people viewed accessing the water was to get out of this area. The campus is built back away from the water. It’s an undesired side effect of how we used to manage our affairs as a community. What a loss.”

These things were in the back of his mind when, four years ago, he heard from a grassroots group of Door County folks who wanted to talk about a university presence in Door County – particularly in research – because water is so important to the economics of the county.

“This is something I was truly on board with,” Dornbush said. “I’d had conversations for a long time about the bay in general. It was important to me to do a better job of connecting economic development and improving water quality. But there was not a clear entity to bring all this together and coordinate and celebrate the people of the bay and its rich history.”

As reported last week, a grant was secured from the Wisconsin Coastal Management Program through UW-GB to conduct a feasibility study for a research station for the region. One of the Door County grassroots members, Caitlin Oleson, led the study, which ended in June 2017 and resulted in the formal process of submitting an application to NOAA to become the 30th NERR in the country.

Dornbush said in the beginning they were looking at two different tracks – a local facility and a national one – but with Oleson’s investigation it became clear to all concerned that going for the national research facility made the most sense.

“If you want to do research, you really want that national focus,” he said. “That’s kind of the answer that came out of the work: we’ve got to go the federal route. Just being part of a federal system would connect you both nationally and internationally with researchers and thought leaders. That’s incredibly important.”

So the process has already begun to garner support from governmental entities in the region, from Marinette to Sturgeon Bay to Green Bay. The next step is to get the support of Gov. Tony Evers, and get him to ask NOAA to consider the region for site feasibility.

If and when that happens, a local advisory committee would be formed to evaluate the best location for a research facility. One of the known requirements is access to a dock for deep-water boats.

“We tried to be very clear as we get support,” Dornbush said. “We can’t guarantee it will be located in your community, but it is going to be a resource available to the region. The university is interested in bringing this resource to the region. We don’t get to choose where it ends up. The process takes some of the politics out of it, which sounds good to me.”