Great Lakes Environmental Directory Great Lakes Great Lakes environment Great Lakes grants exotic species water pollution water export drilling environment Great Lakes pollution Superior Michigan Huron Erie Ontario ecology Great Lakes issues wetlands Great Lakes wetlands Great Lakes Great Lakes environment Great Lakes watershed water quality exotic species Great Lakes grants water pollution water export oil gas drilling environment environmental Great Lakes pollution Lake Superior Lake Michigan Lake Huron Lake Erie Lake Ontario Great Lakes ecology Great Lakes issues Great Lakes wetlands Great Lakes Resources Great Lakes activist Great Lakes environmental organizations Great Lakes Aquatic Habitat air pollution alien species threatened rare endangered species ecological Great Lakes information Success Stories Great Lakes Directory Home/News Great Lakes Calendar Great Lakes jobs/volunteering Search Great Lakes Organizations Take Action! Contact Us Resources/Links Great Lakes Issues Great Lakes News Article About Us Networking Services

Great Lakes Article:

Imperiled Estuary
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 harbor.

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 birds.

``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 breaking point.

``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 cemented.

``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 each spring.

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 are declining.

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 Institute.

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.


The habitat plan calls for aggressive efforts to make sure the habitat isn't lost. And some efforts are under way:

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 work.

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 to sell.

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


This information is posted for nonprofit educational purposes, in accordance with U.S. Code Title 17, Chapter 1,Sec. 107 copyright laws.
For more information go to: If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for
purposes of your own that go beyond "fair use," you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.

Great Lakes environmental information

Return to Great Lakes Directory Home/ Site Map