By Lisa Charron, Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin


The United States has only thirteen designated National Marine Sanctuaries. But that’s about to change.

After fifteen years without a new National Marine Sanctuary, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has finally decided on a new designation—the Lake Michigan shoreline from Port Washington to Two Rivers in our great state of Wisconsin.

The National Marine Sanctuaries program was established on October 23, 1972 by the Marine Protection, Research and Sanctuaries Act in order to protect marine and Great Lake areas with conservation, recreational, ecological, historical, scientific, cultural, archaeological, educational or aesthetic significance. The community nomination process was opened for the first time in twenty years on June 13, 2014, and the communities around the Lake Michigan shoreline set right to work.

Map of the proposed Wisconsin-Lake Michigan sanctuary. Map credit: NOAA.

NOAA is stringent about what is required for an area to be designated. Most notably, nominated areas must have overwhelming community support and must show that their submerged maritime, ecological, economic and/or recreation value would depend on the management support provided by the National Marine Sanctuaries program. Suffice it to say, the communities who wanted to protect their Lake Michigan coastline had their work cut out for them.

With the help of the surrounding municipalities and counties, the Wisconsin Historical Society put together a 25 page report outlining the important archaeological, natural history and educational assets of the 875-acre proposed sanctuary. (You can download the report, as well as NOAA’s response, at the bottom of this page: They focused on the 39 known shipwrecks in the area—15 of which are listed on the National Register of Historic Places—and the 122 vessel losses that can be identified through archival research. Basically, this area off the coast of Wisconsin was once a prime shipping corridor, and now it serves as a hot-bed for learning about Wisconsin’s and the nation’s history and maritime culture. Grand archaeological significance aside, the report also points out the area’s great recreational and tourism capacity, the importance of conserving the world’s largest freshwater system and the opportunity for regional partnerships.

Photo credit: Tamara Thomsen, Wisconsin Historical Society.

Even the amazing qualities inherent to the Wisconsin-Lake Michigan shoreline would not have been enough to win it a place on NOAA’s shortlist. NOAA’s most important deliberating factor is the strength in numbers that a nomination can pull from the surrounding area. The communities around the proposed sanctuary did just that. The cities of Two Rivers, Manitowoc, Sheboygan and Port Washington pulled together a truly astonishing amount of support from local groups. The list includes U.S. and state senators and representatives; local officials and government agencies; state departments; educational institutions; community, environmental, historical and recreation groups; private companies…and it really goes on and on and on.

That did it; NOAA was sold on the Wisconsin-Lake Michigan shoreline sanctuary. A true testament to the power of Wisconsin’s communities to take stock, organize, mobilize and do some really incredible work for the preservation of the state’s resources—whether they are natural, archaeological, cultural or some combination thereof.

Once the designation process is complete, NOAA will help local partners create a management plan for the area, and the Wisconsin-Lake Michigan Shoreline National Marine Sanctuary will enjoy all the support and resources that NOAA can provide. The Wisconsin Historical Society and NOAA want your input as they develop the management plan, so that it will reflect a wide range of interests. To make your voice heard, you can attend any or all of the scheduled listening sessions:

November 17, 6:30 – 8:30 p.m. Wisconsin Maritime Museum 75 Maritime Drive, Manitowoc, WI

November 19, 6:30 – 8:30 p.m. University of Wisconsin-Sheboygan Main Building, Wombat Room (Room 2114) 1 University Drive, Sheboygan, WI

November 18, 6:30 – 8:30 p.m. Wilson House 200 N. Franklin Street, Port Washington, WI


If you can’t make it to one of the sessions, but you still have some input, go to and search for NOAA-NOS-2015-0112, then click on “Comment Now!” or send comments by mail to Ellen Brody, Great Lakes Regional Coordinator, 4840 South State Road, Ann Arbor, MI 48108-9719. Note that the period for public comments ends January 15, 2016.


Photo credit: NOAA.

The Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin has offered support of a slightly different nature to the Lake Michigan shoreline for many years. From helping with projects like dune stabilization and identification of stopover sites for migrating birds; to endowments held for area conservation organizations; to funding conservation projects through our C.D. Besadny grant program, the Foundation has helped preserve the natural resources that the Lake Michigan shoreline offers.

I’d like to end with a quote from the report nominating the Wisconsin-Lake Michigan shoreline for designation: “Too often we take for granted the importance of our shared experiences in shaping us and our communities and we fail to recognize the amazing resources that lie under our feet or just out the window.”

The dunes of Lake Michigan at Two Rivers, Wisconsin. Photo credit: Corey Taratuta via Flickr Creative Commons.

It is the job of conservationists and concerned citizens to point out the preciousness of the resources we have and their role in shaping all aspects of our lives as Wisconsinites.  Hats off to everyone who helped nominate the Wisconsin-Lake Michigan shoreline for this prestigious national recognition; you’re doing just that–pointing out what’s precious right under our noses, and making sure that its cared for.