The similarities between sanctuaries

The unknown always seems to conjure up fear.

Thus it probably isn’t surprising that as officials with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration consider designation of part of Lake Michigan near Sheboygan, Wis., as the country’s second freshwater national marine sanctuary, ghosts from Alpena’s past have surfaced there.

Billboards have popped up touting “No NOAA.” Opposition groups have been formed. Conspiracy theories abound. Concerns about fishing, high water marks, government control and the erosion of private citizen’s rights are arguments often posed at public meetings.

Even some of the players are the same. Russ Green, who was deputy superintendent and research coordinator here in Alpena for many years, now is NOAA’s regional coordinator for the sanctuary in Wisconsin. Ellen Brody, who was instrumental in laboring through the long and tedious designation process here, is doing the same in Wisconsin working hand-in-hand with Green.

As I did the research for this column and read article after article from the newspapers of that region I kept thinking to myself “been there, wrote that.” It was as if I was transported back in time to those early days in Alpena when the sanctuary was but a twinkle in the eyes of historians and archaeologists. There were precious few of us who believed in its potential and were willing to do so publicly. The naysayers were plentiful and vocal.

As we know sanctuary designation came to Alpena in 2000, and within years not only had NOAA kept all the promises it made to area residents, it exceeded them. In the irony or ironies, as Wisconsin residents wrestle with many of the same issues Northeast Michigan residents did years ago, last year residents in Alcona and Presque Isle counties were pushing for more expansion of the sanctuary’s boundaries along their shoreline communities. Officials understood the benefits the sanctuary has brought to the region and wanted to realize NOAA partnerships in a more direct way in their counties. The boundary extension has indeed allowed those partnerships to occur.

A casual observer might not easily recognize that fact, but residents know it to be true. And, in fairness, a trip by a classroom to NOAA might not be on the radar of a visitor, or the fact a teacher in a classroom is using materials and preps about science and Lake Huron that were learned from a seminar he or she had participated in with NOAA.

According to the Aug. 30 edition of the Manitowoc Herald Times Reporter, a resident of that area — Jane Hamilton — and her husband visited Alpena recently, presumably this summer.

She was quoted as saying: “I left Alpena doubting all I had heard at the scoping meeting and all I heard after. Alpena was a nice town, remarkably plain, especially after 17 years of being the only U.S. city with the only Great Lakes sanctuary. I believe Gov. (Scott) Walker will deeply regret his actions if he involves Wisconsin’s Lake Michigan and the coastal cities in a NOAA partnership.”

I wish I could have met Hamilton and visited with her. I would have liked to have shared with her my thoughts and examined further her “plain” observation.

While I didn’t have that opportunity with her, I have talked with others in Wisconsin — city officials and such — and shared with them my opinions on the sanctuary’s importance to our region. The blueprint of what NOAA means to a community exists here for everyone to study and learn from. The sanctuary is very transparent.

The practical side of NOAA’s presence was very visible just a few weeks ago on the front page of The News, when officials announced they had discovered and identified two more shipwrecks within the sanctuary’s boundaries. The newest were in 200-300 feet of water off Presque Isle County — the wooden steamer Ohio which wrecked in1894 and the steel-hulled steamer Choctaw which wrecked in 1915.

No entity is perfect. No operation runs so smoothly it can’t be improved upon.

But when it comes to the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary, I think most of us are quite happy with its operations, management and the promises made, then kept, to our community.

In Northeast Michigan NOAA officials have delivered as promised.

I feel confident they will do the same in Wisconsin.

Bill Speer can be reached via email at bspeer@thealpenanews.com or by phone at 354-3111 ext. 331. Follow Bill on Twitter @billspeer13.