See a cool slideshow of the unique landscapes, plants and animals in the Green Bay watershed!
By Cate Harrington
Bill and Betty Parsons have sailed the waters of Green Bay and Lake Michigan for more than 40 years.
Recalling a recent trip from Washington Island to Sturgeon Bay, Bill commented, “The view of Door County from the water is simply breathtaking. The rocky shoreline, deep green forests and sandy bays—there’s nothing else like it."
From their home in Sturgeon Bay, the Parsons have enjoyed the waters of Green Bay and Lake Michigan and the parks and trails in Door County, often with their children and grandchildren, since 1964.
During that time, they’ve seen many changes including increased development on the bluffs and along the shore of Green Bay and an explosion of invasive species from alewives and zebra mussels to Phragmites and round gobies.
“We’re concerned about the changes we’re seeing,” Betty says, “because we want others to be able to enjoy this beautiful place the way we have."
Conserving the natural features of the Door Peninsula has been a Nature Conservancy priority since the 1960s. It is one of the most biologically rich places in Wisconsin with rare species like the dwarf lake iris that are found only in the Great Lakes region.
In recent years, however, the Conservancy has expanded its work to include the entire Green Bay watershed—an area three times the size of Connecticut that encompasses portions of northeast Wisconsin and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
More than 2,000 square miles in size, Green Bay itself is considered one of the largest freshwater estuaries in the world.
For years, it has been plagued with PCBs, mercury and other chemicals as well as high levels of nutrients and sediments carried by the Fox and Wolf rivers into the bay from farther upstream. As the Parsons noted, it is filled with invasive species.
But the news is not all bad. “Despite degraded water quality and invasive species,” comments Mike Grimm, Conservancy Conservation Ecologist based in Sturgeon Bay, “Green Bay’s wetlands, islands and deep waters are still one of the most ecologically productive ecosystems in the Great Lakes.”
Vicky Harris, a water quality and habitat restoration specialist for the UW Sea Grant Institute, concurs: “Because of the bay’s warmer, shallower, fertile waters, it is the most productive part of Lake Michigan in terms of fish and other aquatic life.”
With funding from the Wisconsin Coastal Management Program, the Conservancy and a diverse group of partners in Wisconsin and Michigan have developed a plan for conserving and restoring Green Bay.
The plan takes a holistic approach that considers the continuum of habitats from the lands drained by tributary streams to the open waters of the bay.
It involves protecting coastal wetlands, sometimes described as the “kidneys” of the Earth due to the many beneficial services they provide such as cleansing polluted waters.
Reducing phosphorus and sediment from agricultural and urban runoff in the Lower Fox River basin and other key tributary streams is also a priority.
Invasive species are a particularly thorny issue, with a new one discovered in the Great Lakes about every 28 weeks.
The Conservancy is working locally with partners to develop and implement strategies that help native species adapt to their changing environment. We’re also advocating for national policies that prevent the introduction of new species into the Great Lakes.
The plan is ambitious and requires that the Conservancy and its partners engage land and water managers, as well as individuals and communities, throughout the watershed in our work.
The Parsons agree that, while conservation groups and public agencies can do a lot, engaging the people who live, work and spend time in the area is critical to conservation success.
Ten years ago, Betty Parsons helped found the Bay Shore Property Owners Association in Sturgeon Bay. Its more than 375 members have helped eradicate invasive species like Phragmites, assisted financially with protecting the bluffs and encouraged more ecologically-friendly land use and development.
“The Great Lakes are one of the world’s freshwater treasures,” says Mike Grimm, “and Green Bay is an incredibly rich part of the system that has nurtured human communities for centuries.
“With support from people like the Parsons who care about this special place, we can make it healthy again for both wildlife and human life.”
Cate Harrington is a senior conservation writer for The Nature Conservancy.April 09, 2012