enthusiasts, bird-watchers trying to smooth ruffled feathers
WHITEFISH POINT, Mich. - To bird-watchers and shipwreck
buffs, this sandy spit of land jutting into eastern Lake
Superior is almost sacred ground.
of raptors, waterbirds and songbirds pass this way during
fall and spring migration, making Whitefish Point one
of the most important flight corridors in North America.
It's also part
of a crucial shipping lane, home to the lake's oldest
active light station and graveyard for many a vessel that
foundered on shoals or succumbed to gales. Seventeen miles
northwest, the wreckage of the Edmund Fitzgerald slumbers
in the icy depths.
So it's hardly
surprising that interest groups would have strong opinions
about what activities are appropriate.
In a November
2000 lawsuit, the Michigan Audubon Society accused the
Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society of overdeveloping
the area, home to a museum operated by the shipwreck group
and an Audubon-affiliated bird observatory. The shipwreck
society had built a gift shop-office building, installed
a septic system and planned to enlarge the museum.
the projects were undermining the point's value as bird
habitat. The shipwreck society said it met environmental
standards set by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which
the Audubon group also sued, saying it wasn't protecting
The sides agreed
last summer to seek a mediated settlement and have been
laying the groundwork. Now comes the tricky part: crafting
a plan that does full justice to Whitefish Point's ecological
and cultural uniqueness.
some good ideas, but I don't know if we'll be able to
get the groups to go for them," said Jim Lively of
the Michigan Land Use Institute, an environmental policy
organization acting as go-between.
During a recent
meeting, Lively presented an architect's sketches of his
draft proposal. Both sides agreed to think it over and
The Coast Guard,
previous owner of the disputed property, devised a plan
a decade ago for joint management by the Audubon group,
the shipwreck society and the Fish and Wildlife Service.
But their differences sharpened over the years, and in
the 1990s the Coast Guard relinquished ownership.
society was given 8.3 acres, the Audubon group 2.7 acres
and the Fish and Wildlife Service 33 acres for addition
to the National Wildlife Refuge System.
Located in Michigan's
northeastern Upper Peninsula, Whitefish Point marks the
entrance of Whitefish Bay, where Lake Superior narrows
and finally meets the St. Marys River, its link with Lake
Huron to the south.
Every ship hauling
freight between Superior and the other Great Lakes takes
this route. Hundreds have wrecked near the point and shoreline
westward. A lighthouse was constructed at Whitefish Point
in 1849 and a Coast Guard lifeboat station in 1923.
advances and safer navigation, the rescue station was
closed and the 80-foot-high light tower automated. But
the site remains hallowed ground to the maritime fraternity.
The shipwreck society, established in 1978, considered
it ideal for a museum.
go up there sometimes just to watch the storms,"
said Terry Begnoche, veteran shipwreck diver and president
of the society board. "You appreciate the power of
nature. . . . You wonder what it must have been like for
the people on those ships. You have a sense of reverence."
bird lovers reply. But Whitefish Point has drawn birds
of passage for thousands of years, and is a desperately
needed stopover. Flying north after winter in the tropics,
they reach the Lake Superior coast and head east, seeking
the shortest crossing to Canada and their summer breeding
Arriving at Whitefish
Point, where it's only a dozen miles across to Ontario,
birds pause for food and rest before the flight over the
wind-swept lake. Many do likewise months later during
the return trip south. At the height of migration, "it's
like a traffic jam" as wave upon wave swoop overhead
and perch in trees or on the beach, said Jeannette Morss,
Whitefish Point Bird Observatory's executive director.
draws bird-watchers from near and far. It's a treasure
trove for scientists, who conduct yearly counts and attach
bands to some birds to track migration patterns.
More than 300
species have been spotted during a single season. Last
spring's census turned up 15 raptor species, including
a half-dozen hawk varieties, and 50 types of water birds
from the common loon to the ring-billed gull. Five owl
species were banded.
1978, the observatory consists of a viewing platform and
a small building with a gift shop and bird banding laboratory.
Across the parking
lot is the shipwreck complex. Its centerpiece is the museum,
featuring artifacts from numerous wrecks, including the
The gift shop,
with public restrooms and office space, is next door.
Nearby are several historic buildings from the rescue
station and lighthouse days, which the shipwreck society
The Audubon group
filed suit after the gift shop was built, claiming it
was too big and the sandy soils ill-suited to the septic
more of a cumulative effect than any one building,"
said Ken Jacobsen, an Audubon board member. His organization
feared if the shipwreck facilities kept expanding, birds
would fly into walls and windows, lose habitat and be
chased off by ever-growing crowds.
executive director of the shipwreck group, said there's
little overlap between the bird migration periods and
the museum's busy season in summer. While removing a few
trees, the shipwreck society also has planted new vegetation,
negotiations lie ahead, both sides have become more conciliatory
since accepting mediation.
The Audubon group
acknowledges that despite the shipwreck museum's growth,
it is not solely responsible for Whitefish Point's popularity,
as many people come to sunbathe or watch ships on the
For its part,
the shipwreck society agrees there must be a limit to
development, but it still intends to add museum wings
for more exhibits, a theater-auditorium and a mariners'
The court order
authorized Lively to impose a management plan if there's
no agreement by June 30. He hopes it won't come to that.
to clearly spell out what is to be done in the future,
so there's no ambiguity and no surprises," he said.
everybody realizes this is a very valuable place and it
has to be protected."