By John Myers
Duluth News Tribune
Published May 17th, 2005
ST. LOUIS RIVER - The Twin Ports waterfront
bustles with activity these days. It's the busiest time
of year along beaches, bays and marshes.
On a recent morning along Duluth's Western Waterfront
Trail, grebes, mallards and Canada geese nested and rested
just off shore. A merlin perched in a pine tree on shore.
Ruby-crowned kingletts flitted in shoreline bushes. Red-winged
blackbirds called for mates from the tops of cattails.
Green-winged teal dabbled in shallow water, feeding before
continuing their trek northwest.
It doesn't take a long walk to see dozens of bird species
along the river estuary. Many waterfowl and birds of prey
already have winged and soared through. But the migration
of smaller songbirds is just peaking.
The combination of heavily forested uplands, open beaches
on Lake Superior and miles of varied marshland and waterfront
are a veritable hotel, restaurant and summer home for
millions of birds each year.
But the 12,000-acre St. Louis River estuary is in trouble.
The lower half has been rendered nearly void of high-quality
habitat after a century of heavy industry and port development.
Since first being mapped in 1861, about 3,000 acres of
wetlands have been lost, and another 4,000 acres of water
area have been filled or destroyed in what is now the
Now, the upper estuary, the remaining 5,000 acres upstream
from the port, is coming under the eyes of developers
who see many of the same qualities here that attract the
``This is an amazing place right inside the city,'' said
Tom Abello, Nature Conservancy spokesman and part of a
small group looking at waterfront habitat.
The St. Louis River is about 100 miles long, winding
from the eastern Iron Range to Lake Superior. But it's
the last 20 miles that may be the most environmentally
significant -- the largest estuary in western Lake Superior.
``We have already lost most of the natural habitat in
the harbor area,'' Abello said. ``The Clough Island development
and the (potential) loss of the Superior Municipal Forest
is a current threat in the lower river.''
Conservation and bird experts say no one knows the exact
``It seems we don't know what we'll miss until it's gone,''
said Duluth birder Laura Erickson. ``We should be at the
point where we are trying to fix things out there, not
make them worse.''
Some of the land the birds favor is privately owned and
susceptible to development. Most public land can be rezoned
and sold with a simple vote of a city council. Even the
Superior Municipal Forest, which some thought was preserved,
is just a City Council vote away from development -- its
status as a Wisconsin Natural Area was never formally
``This is great habitat. But, of everything you see here,
almost none of it is protected,'' Daryl Peterson, Northeast
Minnesota field representative for the Nature Conservancy,
said while walking near the Indian Point Campground along
the river. ``Our opportunities for habitat protection
are really from here up.''
Most Northland residents know about the huge migration
of hawks and other birds of prey over the Twin Ports each
fall. But fewer know about the millions of other birds,
especially songbirds, that fly over and stop in the area
Scientists are just starting to understand the importance
of the Twin Ports to a host of different bird species
-- and not just the ones that stay here to nest, but hundreds
of species just stopping on their way north.
Of the more than 400 bird species that pass through Minnesota
at one time or another each year, nearly threequarters
are found in this area. But several species' populations
It's becoming more clear that the western tip of Lake
Superior isn't just a bird magnet because the birds skirt
the lake on their migrations -- but also because of resting,
roosting and feeding habitat here, said Gerald Niemi,
an ornithologist and director of the Center for Water
and the Environment at UMD's Natural Resources Research
Many birds use the area for several days to rest and
recharge for the last legs of their long flights.
``Some of these birds, some of the plovers and terns,
will go all the way to the Arctic,'' Niemi said. ``There's
so many different kinds of habitat here it's hard to say
which is most important. They are all important.''
According to the St. Louis River habitat plan, completed
by the St. Louis River Citizens Action Committee in 2002,
the No. 1 threat to the ecosystem is loss of habitat to
development. Increased sedimentation caused by development
and from other sources is No. 2.
``In spite of human impacts, the lower St. Louis River
ecosystem is both regionally and globally significant,''
the plan's executive summary notes.
The plan -- developed since 1989 with input from 54 different
state, local and federal groups and agencies -- is a ``blueprint
for recovery,'' said Lynelle Hanson, director of the St.
Louis River Citizen's Action Committee.
``It's out there for the agencies . . . and governments
to use. The goal is protection and restoration of what
has been a degraded environment,'' Hanson said.
EFFORTS UNDER WAY
The habitat plan calls for aggressive efforts to make
sure the habitat isn't lost. And some efforts are under
In 2001, the Nature Conservancy purchased 87 acres of
sensitive Wisconsin waterfront downstream from Oliver.The
hilly land tends to erode, adding to siltation in the
river, which would have intensified if the land had been
opened for development. The parcel, now protected in state
hands, also included 35 acres of wetlands.
The Nature Conservancy and city of Duluth are nearing
the final stages of protecting the 2,000-acre Magney Snively
forest in western Duluth under the city's fledgling Natural
Areas Program. The forest will be the first big area permanently
protected by conservation easements under the city program.
An area along the river, called North Bay, also has been
nominated for natural-area protection.
The Great Lakes Regional Collaboration is a multistate
effort to develop a basinwide restoration program for
the lakes and attract federal money to put the plans into
More than $1.75 million in state and federal conservation
money is available to buy Clough Island, also called Whiteside
Island, to preserve key habitat for birds, fish and animals.
The habitat plan calls for the island to become a wildlife
sanctuary, possibly a refuge under the U.S. Fish and Wildlife
Service. The island, more than 30 percent of which is
wetland, is considered critical for shoreline habitat.
Other money may be available from private groups. So far,
however, developers -- who plan a major recreation and
housing complex for the island -- have been unwilling
Efforts are ongoing on Wisconsin Point to re-create habitat
for piping plovers, an endangered species once fairly
common in the area but moved off their beachfront nesting
areas by human activity. The birds have been spotted in
the Twin Ports, but still haven't nested here.
There have been some successes.
On Intestate Island below the Blatnik Bridge, common
terns are returning thanks to habitat improvements and
efforts to control non-native ring-billed gulls.
In Stryker Bay, the ongoing Superfund cleanup and coverup
will help restore a pollution hotspot and restore wildlife
habitat, including wetlands for birds, Hanson said.
``There is some good work going on. But we have so much
more to do,'' she said. ``We've been blessed in a city
and area that have so much great green space . . . but
the pressures to develop those are increasing. Keeping
those areas around as habitat isn't just important for
wildlife and birds and butterflies. It's important for
us, for people.''
JOHN MYERS covers the environment, natural resources
and general news. He can be reached at (218) 723-5344
or at firstname.lastname@example.org.