Walker Rescinds Nomination For Lake Michigan National Marine Sanctuary

Walker's Decision Stumps Local Officials Advocating For Nomination

Home shipwreck
Built in 1843 the schooner, Home, is one of the oldest shipwrecks discovered in Wisconsin. Tamara Thomsen/Wisconsin Historical Society

Gov. Scott Walker is rescinding the state’s effort to get a national marine sanctuary designation for part of Lake Michigan along the shores of Manitowoc, Sheboygan and Ozaukee counties.

The move surprised local leaders along Lake Michigan who say the designation would help protect historic wrecks.

The sanctuary would have helped the state protect at least 37 shipwrecks, stretching roughly along the shores from Port Washington up a bit beyond Two Rivers.

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Walker’s nomination paperwork to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration asked for a 875-square-mile region. Federal officials then expanded that to between 1,075 and 1,260 square miles, according to the Sheboygan Press.

Map of proposed boundaries for the Wisconsin–Lake Michigan National Marine Sanctuary. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Two Rivers City Manager Greg Buckley called Walker’s move “stunning.”

“Let’s talk this through rather than what appears, based on a lack of communication we’ve had at the local level, to be a pretty abrupt, frankly, stunning move on the part of the state,” Buckley said.

The sanctuary designation would have given extra protections for shipwrecks. Local cities like Two Rivers planned to use it as a promotional tool for tourism.

In a letter to the NOAA sent Feb. 27, Walker said he is rescinding the state’s nomination, citing concerns about state’s rights, added regulations, and the federal government’s ability to issue fines for violations.

Walker also wrote that questions arose about Wisconsin’s sovereignty on the matter, meaning what authorities or laws would change if the sanctuary was approved. There were also questions about commercial and recreational fishing, or if people would be fined for “picking up a piece of debris.”

In a written statement Walker spokeswoman Amy Hasenberg said, “after further review and receiving concerns from citizens, we decided it was not in the best interest of the state to move forward with this designation.”

The state of Wisconsin nominated the proposed sanctuary in 2014, according to NOAA. The Wisconsin-Lake Michigan National Marine Sanctuary would have been only the second sanctuary in the Great Lakes and the first in the nation since 2000.

With Walker pulling out of the deal, local leaders say the designation is dead in the water.

Buckley said two well-known historic wrecks are offshore from his community.

“We have the Rouse Simmons, which is the fabled Christmas Tree ship of the Great Lakes that went down in a November gale in 1912; the Steamer “Vernon,” which foundered off of Two Rivers in the 1880s,” Buckley said.

He said the community buried and built a memorial to seven people killed in the Vernon’s wreck, and that the designation would have helped pay for buoys to mark wrecks.

Buckley also said it would have given the cities a marketing opportunity to attract divers and history buffs.

In a joint news release from the affected cities, Port Washington’s Tourism Council Executive Director Kathy Tank called Walker’s decision a “missed opportunity.”

She claimed one third of Wisconsin’s visitor spending is done along the I-43 corridor, which runs near Lake Michigan communities.

“Our business partners were very well-positioned to capture additional tourism dollars,” Tank wrote.

Public hearings were held last year on the designation.

Buckley said he hopes to schedule meetings with the Governor’s office to see if the effort to get the sanctuary status may be revived.