By David Boe
Protecting the Point
The Wisconsin Point Restoration Project is Designed to Safeguard
and Enhance a Natural Treasure Important to Wildlife, Residents and Visitors
Tom Bridge has always had a fondness for Wisconsin Point. A native of Superior, Bridge has spent a lot of time at “The Point,” biking there frequently and enjoying the warm summer afternoons. He pointed out that the place was known as a “party place,” but added it is also known for duck hunting, bird watching, hiking, fishing, more than four miles of beach and the informal boat launch. In short, said Bridge, the Point has a lot to offer to the community – but in doing so it has been abused.
“We have this incredible resource and it is a beautiful place” he said. “We need to take care of it, so maybe it will inspire more responsible behavior.”
The way Bridge and others saw it, the Point needed sprucing up – but even more than that, restoring it, enhancing it, protecting it and maintaining it. As a former Superior city councilor for 11 years, Bridge started to work on the issue, bringing together all the different elements generally needed for such a project: city, state, federal, tribal and other organizations – and, of course contractors. The usual suspects for an unusual point of land.
“We have this incredible resource and it is a beautiful place. We need to take care of it.”
– Superior City Councilor Tom Bridge
Wisconsin Point is a slim, 228-acre peninsula set in the southeast end of Superior between Lake Superior and Allouez Bay. The Point is owned primarily by the city, except for about 18 acres on the tip owned by the federal government; through a pending land transfer agreement, 14 of those 18 acres will be transferred to the Fond du Lac Band. The north end of the Point is also the Superior Entry to the Port of Duluth-Superior and is managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. A 1,000-foot protection pier featuring a historic lighthouse, built in 1913, is nearby.
The area contains about four miles of open sand beach and dunes, open water, small interdunal wetlands, low brush, mature red and white pine forest and young deciduous upland forest. Allouez Bay, on the south side of the Point, is a sheltered bay and is considered to be important habitat for the productivity of the lower St. Louis River estuary and the western region of Lake Superior. Such bays provide vital spawning, nursery and feeding areas for different types of fish.
There’s one way in and one way out to the Point, along the appropriately named Wisconsin Point Road, but there are currently 22 parking lots or parking turnouts that are sprinkled along the route. This has allowed for a lot of recreational access, as well as degradation of the dune ecosystem. In addition, the Point has been infested with a number of invasive plant species. It has long served as an important scientific, educational and historical study area. The Point was settled by the Lake Superior Band of Ojibwe and has a sacred burial ground, so it is also an important cultural site.
“It’s one reason I chose to live in Superior. It’s beautiful, serene, relaxing and peaceful.”
– Linda Cadotte, City of Superior Parks, Recreation and Forestry Department
There’s a lot to consider, which is why the city submitted a $1.6 million project grant to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). According to Heather Stirratt, Great Lakes Regional Lead for NOAA’s Office of Coastal Management, funding for the project’s design phase has been granted, and once complete, final construction plans for the project will be reviewed.
“This is a high-profile project,” Stirratt said. “This grant is going through.”
As the City of Superior’s director of parks, recreation and forestry, Linda Cadotte explained that she is tasked with the execution of the design grant, managing the various stakeholders, leading the design phase and eventually executing the project, as well as ongoing maintenance and monitoring the restoration. She said the design should be completed early in 2017, and if the construction portion of the grant is approved, work will begin through 2017-2018.
Cadotte also noted that the design scope has expanded slightly to include educational signage, restrooms and trails. Other aspects planned include consolidating the 22 parking lots to four, new boardwalks and viewing decks, and replacing concrete barriers with natural materials. And Cadotte’s excited about the project because she said hands down, the Point is one of her favorite places in Superior.
“It’s one reason I chose to live in Superior,” she said. “It’s beautiful, serene, relaxing and peaceful.”
Heading up completion of the analysis and review of the Point’s conceptual design is Leggette, Brasheers & Graham, a groundwater and environmental consulting firm that has been in business for more than 70 years. LBG currently has 19 offices located in 14 states. The office handling the Point restoration project is located in Duluth. Project Manager Rob Peterson explained that LBG’s primary responsibilities include developing an invasive species management plan, native plant community and dune restoration design, shoreline stabilization design and assisting the City of Superior with the public participation process. In addition to the core LBG project team, Peterson said the firm is partnering with TKDA, a local engineering company, as a primary subcontractor for topographic survey and engineering design tasks for this project.
“This is a high-profile project. This grant is going through.”
– Heather Stirratt, NOAA Office of Coastal Management
“Basically, LBG’s primary role is to design all of the environmental aspects of the project,” said Peterson. “All of the project planning and design will be achieved through consultation with Wisconsin Point stakeholders and public comment.”
Peterson elaborated on some aspects of the tasks involved, including low-impact design for storm water runoff from roads and parking areas, designing green or living shorelines to reduce erosion along Allouez Bay, and developing plans for enhancing or restoring the native plant community and wildlife habitat. He added that invasive
species control and management is a large component of this and many restoration projects, like others they are working on within the St. Louis River watershed. Peterson said it’s what he lives for.
“LBG is honored and excited to be working with the City of Superior on the Wisconsin Point Dunes Restoration Project,” he said. “Restoration projects like this are what make us excited to get up and go to work in the morning. These projects allow us to see the positive effects we can have on the local environment where we live and play and give us the opportunity to make a difference for future generations.”
As Peterson noted, one of the issues on the Point are invasive plant species. Ironically, with all the foot traffic, a lot of the native plant species have declined and need to be restored, yet invasive species have flourished. One with great expertise in this area is Nicholas Danz, associate professor of plant science and chair of the University of Wisconsin-Superior’s Natural Sciences Department. Danz has been keenly interested in the Wisconsin Point dunes for the past eight years.
“Restoration projects like this are what make us excited to get up and go to work in the morning.”
– Project Manager Rob Peterson, Leggette, Brasheers & Graham
“The Point has some dune plant communities that are very rare in Wisconsin – and just plain neat and interesting,” said Danz. “Some invasive plants have colonized areas of the Point, and they threaten these natural communities by spreading fast, having long-lived, persistent seed banks and outcompeting native plants. In extreme cases, invasive plants can cause lower native plant diversity and change the functioning of the [natural] system.”
In particular, said Danz, the Spotted Knapweed is an aggressive colonizer of sandy, gravelly areas around the dunes. He thinks the species colonized the Point after 1983 when brought in and spread during
excavation work near the entry, where it is now dominant and widespread.
“In some areas, there are over 400 Knapweed individual plants within one-by-one-meter areas,” he said. “I worked with several students to map all invasive plants, including Knapweed, across the Point and we even hand-pulled a city-owned parcel on the Allouez Bay side near the end of the Point. Further, we planted naturally occurring tree species in an attempt to shade out Knapweed, because it requires full sun.”
Danz cited other “problem” species, like the notoriously aggressive European Buckthorn, as well as Honeysuckle, that would be good targets for treatment – a long-term goal, but possible through the restoration grant.
“It’s my hope that UWS students will be able to participate in areas of the project related to post-construction monitoring related to the success of invasive control and native plant reestablishment,” he said.
“The project complements ongoing habitat restoration efforts around the Point and in Allouez Bay.”
– Matt Steiger, Wisconsin DNR Water Resources Division
The Wisconsin Coastal Management Program (WCMP) is collaborating with the City of Superior as a partner to address natural and cultural resource protection on the Point while providing appropriate public access as part of the overall Area of Concern for the St. Louis River estuary, according to Mike Friis, program manager and public access coordinator.
“We funded the master plan back in 2008,” noted Friis, “and from that plan grew the initiative to improve Wisconsin Point’s outlying issues of public access, ecology and cultural interpretation.”
He said funding for this project – part of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative – comes from NOAA, then goes through the WCMP, which in turn will award it to the City of Superior. In addition, WCMP will provide technical expertise, said Friis, who has worked on a lot of projects over his 18 years at WCMP.
The Lake Superior National Estuarine Research Reserve (NERR) is another partner. It is the most recent addition to the National Estuarine Research Reserve System, one of 28 NOAA-designated sites across the country dedicated to long-term research on coastal resources and engagement with coastal communities those resources support. The NERR landowner partners are the Wisconsin DNR, City of Superior, Douglas County and the University of Wisconsin.
Reserve Manager Dr. Erika Washburn said the Wisconsin Point project is an example of a core part of what they do. “The Reserve works in partnership to improve the understanding of Lake Superior estuaries and coastal resources, and we address the issues affecting them through an integrated program of research, education, outreach and stewardship,” she explained.
Many of the project partners are on the Reserve’s advisory board. “Of course, collaboration is absolutely central,” Washburn said. “It’s a complicated project with a lot of perspectives, but I’m looking forward to it.”
The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources is collaborating with the City of Superior as a partner in addressing the environmental concerns on the Point, which is included in the overall Area of Concern for the St. Louis River Estuary, according to Matt Steiger, who is the St. Louis River Area of Concern coordinator in the Wisconsin DNR’s Water Resources Division.
“The St. Louis River is one of 43 Great Lakes Area of Concern [AOC] and has suffered decades of pollution and habitat loss due to poor industrial and municipal waste management practices, shoreline development and alteration to aquatic habitats,” said Steiger. “Since the 1970s, the water quality and beauty of the river has been improving, and the AOC program has set a goal of
removing the impairments and delisting
the AOC by 2025.”
“The Fond du Lac Band … is appreciative that the City of Superior will be collaborating with the Band in regard to restoration activities.”
– Jill Hoppe, Tribal Historic Preservation Officer
The Wisconsin DNR’s role in the project, said Steiger, is to support the restoration of the unique sand spit, dune and aquatic habitats on the Point. He added that the unique habitats found on the Point are home to many species of plants and wildlife as well as migratory bird stopover and breeding habitat.
“Ongoing erosion issues, invasive species concerns, protection of sensitive areas and enhanced recreational usage will be addressed in the project,” said Steiger. “The project complements ongoing habitat restoration efforts around the Point and in Allouez Bay. My role will be to participate on the restoration site team and provide review and assistance throughout the project.”
Another concern being addressed is to ensure that the important archeological and cultural resources on the Point are protected. The Point and the surrounding area is the homeland of the Anishinaabe/Chippewa/Ojibwe (which are different names for the same culturally related indigenous people of North America, including the U.S. and Canada). According to Tribal Historic Preservation Officer Jill Hoppe of the Fond du Lac Band, the graves of generations of Anishinaabe people were removed from the Wisconsin Point sacred Chippewa burial ground to facilitate development by U.S. Steel in the early 1900s.
Some of the exhumed burials were reinterred at the St. Francis Church/Nemadji Cemetery; however, she added, it is anticipated that a significant number of burials may still remain on the Point.
“The Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa is appreciative that the City of Superior will be collaborating with the Band in regard to restoration activities at Wisconsin Point,” said Hoppe. “This approach certainly outweighs the desecration that occurred at this immensely significant historical and cultural site, where the Anishinaabe people had lived for hundreds of years prior to industry and processing docks. There was much opposition against moving the burials.”
Hoppe added that per the dunes restoration project design, the Fond du Lac Band appreciates that the City of Superior and Leggette, Brashears & Graham Inc. intend to apply a Systems Approach to Geomorphic Engineering (SAGE), which incorporates nature-based measures for living shoreline stabilization and ecosystem resilience.
This restoration project is important not only to those involved in the work, but to area residents and visitors who also treasure the Point. It encompasses ecology, science, recreation, archeology, history and responsible property development and protection.
“This project is intended to balance recreational activities with the need to protect natural resources,” said Cadotte. And for her, this project, once done, will only enhance what is already a great place to visit for an obvious reason.
“Every time you visit, no matter what time of the year, the lake looks different,” she said. “I am reminded about how very lucky I am – we are – to be living next to the largest freshwater lake and the largest sandspit in the world to enjoy it.” P.S.
David Boe is a Twin Ports-based freelance writer.