A complex system, complex resources

Waters of the Peshtigo River mingle in a complex system of physical and biological diversity with Lake Michigan, forming a broad estuarine ecosystem south of the City of Marinette. It represents just one among a vast number of estuaries along the Bay of Green Bay coastal regions and is currently under consideration for inclusion in a National Estuarine Research Reserve (NERR).

EagleHerald staff writer

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is part one of a two-part story concerning the endeavor to establish the Bay of Green Bay as a “non-regulatory” research reserve. Part two comes Friday and delves further into the local aspects of what area community members and leaders hope those efforts will bring for the Peshtigo/Marinette region, including the potential development of a NOAA-funded, state-of-the-art research/visitor center.

MARINETTE—Absorbing a notion of the irreplaceable abundance of resources inherent in the Bay of Green Bay’s coastal ecosystems requires only a single still moment beneath the canopies of silver maple, elm, cottonwood and other forest species along the northeastern edge of the Peshtigo River, just before its waters spill into Green Bay.

The first ruddy beams of sunlight skimming across low morning clouds, where the river fans out into a wide freshwater estuary, stirs a calming multitude of soundscape ecology, to which can simply listen in that stillness. The sounds converge from every direction into a diverse orchestration: echoing primeval trills of various bird species; the nearby buzz of the firefly and the subsequent splash of a walleye breaking the river’s surface, aiming to make a meal of that large insect; and the millions of murmuring frogs.

And not to forget the plunk of a fisherman’s lure, proof of how area communities rely upon such aquatic environments for recreation, economy and also, advancement of science and education.

The bay represents one of the largest surface freshwater estuary systems on the planet, and there is no skimping on the details when it comes to the importance of its estuarine systems (See Understanding Estuary). And aligning with the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay’s (UWGB) 30-years-and-going endeavor to protect that natural resource, officials with the university kick-off a collaborative effort this week to raise public support to establish a large portion of the bay as a region dedicated to research, conservation, education and stewardship.

THE NERR PROGRAM

Under the oversight and major funding of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) (See NERR by the numbers), a coordinated undertaking between UWGB and various members and organizations of coastal bay communities (including the Peshtigo and Marinette areas) seeks to join a scientifically venerated network of 29 sites across the nation of “non-regulated” research reserves. Together, those regions consist of over 1.3 million acres of coastal estuarine habitat.

If successful, a large regional area of the bay would enlist as part of a nationwide network of coastal zones designated as NERRs (National Estuarine Research Reserves) with one local community serving as headquarters to a state-of-the-art research/visitor center. In each NERR, various coastal communities, individuals and organizations partner with NOAA to expand scientific understanding of these complex environmental habitats.

As noted by regional biologist for Ducks Unlimited (DU) Brian Glenzinski in a recent UWGB press release, the development of cooperative partnerships dedicated to forming the Green Bay NERR (GB-NERR) can precipitate far-reaching benefits for conservation, wildlife and funding opportunities. Those benefits can help catalyze great return for local communities, augmenting education, recreation and scientific research, which feed back into economies.

“Green Bay is an incredibly important area for migratory birds and a priority for DU and we have, therefore, established a conservation delivery program with partners in the area,” Glenzinski said. “One of the most useful partnerships is with UW-Green Bay, in which we can immediately study and evaluate the conservation practices installed to gain a better understanding of restoration efforts in the Bay and apply findings to future projects. The GB-NERR has great potential to elevate and expand this cycle for benefit of (the Bay of) Green Bay, the Great Lakes and beyond.”

According to Emily Tyner, Director of Freshwater Strategy at UWGB,—while the push to seek NERR designation remains in its infancy—discussions promoting the endeavor between UWGB officials and various area leaders and the public, hope to convey those benefits. Area officials taking part in those discussions include members of the public, business leaders in the City of Peshtigo Chamber of Commerce and the of the Marinette and Menominee Chamber of Commerce; Peshtigo School District officials; area businesses; and Marinette County officials.

“Those conversations are part of our broad outreach to all the communities around the Bay of Green Bay,” Tyner said, emphasizing the need for a team effort. “Our goal is to get the designation ... it is not a (City of) Green Bay goal but a regional goal to have Green Bay (water) designated.”

In essence, NERR designation would bring a centralized research/visitor center facility to a selected community within the bay. From there, scientists, educators and the public could facilitate research and education across the entire span of NERR, which could include a vast area of the bay’s coastal estuarine shorelines. According to Tyner other national NERR systems range in size from 500 acres to more than 200,000 acres of non-regulated reserves.

If chosen, the bay would be the third location within the Great Lakes NERR system, accompanied by the Lake Superior National Estuarine Research Reserve, established in 2010 in Superior, and the Old Woman Creek NERR, established in 1980 on the shores of Lake Erie in Ohio.

Tyner underscored that while the GB-NERR will focus on the promotion and stewardship of estuary and coastal water systems through research and education, it will establish the bay as a national “non-regulatory” estuary.

“I want to emphasize that this is a non-regulatory reserve; no new regulations are imposed,” she informed the EagleHerald. “There won’t be restrictions on fishing, hunting, shipping, etc.”

SELECTION PROCESS

While NOAA serves as the lead federal agency in the selection process, it begins with grassroots coordination and support of many partners, from community members to higher levels of government. Step one starts with a “letter of interest” to NOAA from the state in which the NERR would reside.

Step two entails the site nomination process using state-defined selection criteria and a selection committee consisting of scientists, educators, resource managers and non-governmental organizations. Through public forums and selection committee discussions, the state determines the location and passes the nomination to NOAA.

“UWGB is looking for that public support and public engagement,” said Kristen Edgar, a Town of Peshtigo (TOP) supervisor who is among local officials participating in the NERR discussions.

Edgar appreciates the potential benefits of establishing GB-NERR and possibly developing a research/visitor center in the area, which would serve as the focal point for the entire GB-NERR.

“If we can raise that public engagement and show that people in the area are supportive and that they will be involved, that can make a difference,” Edgar said.

Once site nomination is approved, step three tackles the drafting of an environmental impact statement and management plan for the site, which also includes a request for funding. This step continues the public engagement and feedback through informational meetings before developing the final draft of the impact statement and management. The last two steps involve largely contractual and ceremonial activities to officially establish the long-term research, water quality monitoring, educational programs and coastal stewardship activities of the NERR.

The process is long and detailed, but UWGB already made many big initial steps, including the recruitment of community interest into the value of establishing a NERR.

As a collective community that includes the cities of Peshtigo, Marinette, Menominee and their surrounding areas, Peshtigo Area Chamber of Commerce President Tony O’Neill represents another community leader expressing interest and spreading the word about the program’s possibilities. He is particularly interested in establishing the advanced GB-NERR research/visitor center facility in this area. However, he realizes none of it can happen without strong support and cooperation among those neighboring communities.

“Overall, I think as a (collective) community-type venture, the opportunity to be considered for the (designation) is just fantastic,” O’Neill said. “I believe we have such a great area consisting of different diversity compared to other areas that we should definitely consider it a positive note (toward) our selection (chances). I would like to see how the community comes together to actually push forward with this. Marinette, Peshtigo, Menominee, we are an area by design more so than we are as individual governments. So as an area, we need to pull together to try and bring this here.”