by Dr. Bruce D. Jones, Grosse Isle Nature and Land Conservancy
In March of 1993, the Grosse Isle Nature and Land Conservancy (GINLC) hosted the first Lower Detroit River Ecosystem Conference, with citizens and representatives from local, state, and federal agencies in attendance. The American Heritage River Initiative hosted two other conferences in Windsor, Ontario, beginning an international dialogue about the problems facing the Detroit River and what could be done to protect it. Each conference generated more enthusiasm, knowledge, and more people who grew to understand the ecosystem and its value to wildlife and our human relationship to it.
The Friends of the Detroit River (FDR), an early ally of the Grosse Isle Nature and Land Conservancy in this effort, had more experience and regional contacts, so the two groups began working together. Over the next few years, more people became involved with the River, more eagles and osprey were sighted, and the walleye returned to the Trenton Channel in numbers large enough to justify its nationally-recognized fishing tournaments.
But, in 1997, another challenge almost brought progress to an ugly halt when developers announced plans for three hundred condos, a bridge, marina, and a golf course in the heart of the ecosystem — the Humbug Marsh — the last undeveloped mile of the River. Humbug includes a pre-settlement oak savannah with trees 4 to 6 feet in diameter and a pre-settlement shoreline with the greatest biological diversity in the lower river. The issues, challenges, and scope of the battle were great. FDR stepped to the forefront and set up a Marsh Protection Fund, hosted fundraisers, led voter and petition drives, and, with GINLC, fought to “Save the Marsh”. Grants from the U.S. Park Service and the Great Lakes Aquatic Habitat Network and Fund helped build the organization, publicize hearings, publish newsletters, and increase membership. Together the groups brought over 1,000 development opponents to a public hearing, and ultimately led to the Army Corps of Engineers rejecting the developers’ permit requests.
If luck is “the residue of hard work”, along the way the two groups started getting lucky. Supported by FDR and GINLC, the Detroit River was declared one of only fourteen National Heritage Rivers in 1998, and a Canadian Heritage River in 2001, an encouraging example of two countries working together to protect the same resource. In another uphill battle, the two groups shared a vision for a Detroit River Greenway, connecting all 26 miles along the River. Few “movers and shakers” thought this anything more than a “green fantasy”, but now, to the surprise of everyone except those working for it, the Greenway planning is well established, the movement is picking up steam, and early construction is beginning.
Though it’s still not over, the battle now looks like it is going our way. Local communities, political representatives on city councils, the State Legislature, and the U.S. Congress are now galvanized. Incrementally, the pieces of a great wildlife refuge have begun to come together. The 120-acre Hennepin Marsh was donated to GINLC in 1997, the DNR purchased Stony Island in 1999 following recommendation by GINLC, and last year Calf Island was preserved. The collaborative efforts to protect the Detroit River have grown to include dozens of other grassroots groups, towns, city councils, media outlets, the Sierra Club, Audubon Society, Greenways Program, Ducks Unlimited, Friends of the Huron, Rouge and Clinton Rivers, Great Lakes United, the International Joint Commission, UAW, The Nature Conservancy, CAW, the Michigan Land Trust, and various funding entities – all pulling in the same direction!
With the passage of the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge Act, a sense of exhilaration and accomplishment are being shared. Uniquely, the Refuge is not a large, federally owned core of land, but a partnership among many landowners. So the Refuge will continue to keep environmental activists working together, just as they did to bring it into existence.
When President Bush made the Refuge a reality, it may have been a final stroke of the pen for him, but for the two groups that started and shepherded the efforts, and who grew and evolved throughout the process, it’s just a beginning.