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Shipwreck enthusiasts, bird-watchers trying to smooth ruffled feathers
Associated Press

WHITEFISH POINT, Mich. - To bird-watchers and shipwreck buffs, this sandy spit of land jutting into eastern Lake Superior is almost sacred ground.

Untold thousands 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.

Critics said 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 area.

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.

"We've got 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 meet again.

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.

The shipwreck 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.

With technological 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.

"People 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."

Fair enough, 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 grounds.

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.

The spectacle 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.

Established in 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 Fitzgerald.

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 is restoring.

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 drain fields.

"It was 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.

Tom Farnquist, 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, he said.

Though tough 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 lake.

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' memorial.

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.

"We need to clearly spell out what is to be done in the future, so there's no ambiguity and no surprises," he said.

"I think everybody realizes this is a very valuable place and it has to be protected."

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