Last Refuge on the River—Land&People

For years, it was a secret spot known mainly to anglers and hunters. A place where endangered osprey perch on an old oak snag, their talons wound tightly around a flapping fish. A place where migrating ducks feast sumptuously on half-submerged beds of wild celery. A place where prized and once-abundant sturgeon, now rare in the lower Great Lakes, are beginning to spawn again in the slow-moving, shallow waters.

This is Humbug Marsh, the last remaining wetland on the American banks of the Detroit River. All the rest of the 32-mile shoreline between Detroit and Lake Erie is hidden behind rip-rap and concrete seawalls, covered with steel factories, shipping yards, and other powerhouses of Detroit's auto-based economy.

Few of the five million people who live around the river had heard of Humbug Marsh until a couple of years ago, when developers announced plans to convert it into a golf course surrounded by million-dollar homes. That's when Bruce Jones sounded the alarm. A semiretired dentist whose family has lived near the river for three generations, Jones grew up watching birds dive in Humbug Marsh as the sun played peek-a-boo on its waters. He knew what would be lost if a developer were allowed to bulldoze the small fingers of water that wash from the river into 400-plus acres where hummingbirds, hawks, and monarch butterflies rest on their annual migrations from Canada to Mexico and points south. He knew that behind the scraggly roadside trees on the marsh's edge a stand of red oaks two feet thick sink their roots deep into the soil and history of the Great Lakes region. Just beyond, on a small upland rise, a few white oaks more than four feet in diameter tower above the mucky marsh. They are among the last living legacies of the summer of 1701, when the French explorer Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac landed his voyageur canoe on the riverbank that would become Detroit.

To Jones it was obvious: Humbug Marsh had to be saved for future generations of people and wildlife to enjoy. Soon he was writing letters to newspapers, city officials, state regulators, and anyone else who might help. He was organizing rallies. He was passing petitions.

His work is not done. On a crisp afternoon last fall, Jones stood on the dock of a marina adjacent to Humbug Marsh. A slim, white-haired man in jeans and a maroon fleece shirt, he trained his wire-rimmed glasses upriver, naming the companies that built the various smokestacks lining the shore from a place called the "black lagoon" down to the edge of the marsh: Detroit Edison, Great Lakes Steel, Chrysler, and others. Then he motioned toward Humbug, the wet and wooded lot next door. "In there," he said, "you're in a totally different world. Trees close in all around you. You can't believe you're in the Detroit metropolitan area."

Jones, founder of the nearby Grosse Ile Conservancy and a lifelong environmental activist, wasn't the only one who jumped to action when plans were announced to develop Humbug. Members of other groups including Friends of the Detroit River got involved, selling "Save Humbug Marsh" T-shirts, passing out leaflets at bait-and-tackle shops, and speaking out by the hundreds at public hearings on the developer's proposed building permits.

Congressman John Dingell, whose family has represented the area since 1932 and who worked on the protection of a small piece of the river in the 1960s, realized that this was a critical point in time for the river he cares so deeply about. "Humbug Marsh is a wonderful place . . . the last wildland on the Michigan side of the river that appears much as it did when the area was settled two centuries ago." The threat to Humbug convinced Dingell that a more comprehensive approach to river protection was needed, and he began drafting legislation to create an international wildlife refuge along the river.

State officials began to take notice as well. They modified the developer's plans without entirely rejecting the notion of building mansions in the swamp. But the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers refused to allow the developer to build a bridge from a part of the marsh known as Humbug Island to the watery mainland. Lawyers were retained. Before long, the developer had sued the Corps. The banks had sued the developer. The state had sued the developer for breaching the terms of a longstanding easement on part of the marsh by scraping down saplings in preparation for construction.

Planning a River Renaissance

Humbug is the crown jewel of the properties that TPL hopes to preserve on and about the Detroit River, according to Steve Muyskens, who leads TPL's efforts in southeast Michigan. In addition to Humbug Marsh and Island, TPL hopes to acquire an adjacent old factory site owned by Chrysler and several nearby properties. "Our goal is to see that Humbug Marsh remains an example of natural habitat that people can visit and see what the Detroit River was like before all the development."

Detroit is a classic example of urban sprawl at its worst. The city lost half its population since the 1950s, dipping below one million for the first time in decades during the 2000 census. Some blame the race riots of the 1960s. Others blame foreign competitors who brought hard times to the U.S. auto industry.

As people left Detroit, the city was burdened with vast tracts of abandoned homes. Many have been torched or torn down. Still, it is not unusual to find blocks with a handful of old homes standing amid lots of weeds and rubble. Meanwhile, the ever-expanding suburbs continue to consume former farmland, requiring the construction of new schools, new roads, and sewer lines.

In the mid-1990s, some in the region began to talk about reversing that trend. If only the Detroit River and its tributaries could be cleaned up, if they could be made beautiful and accessible for recreational uses, perhaps people could be enticed to move back into the city and its grittier, older suburbs. It was an ambitious notion. But many thought it was worth a try.

First, the U.S. government began pumping millions of dollars into a pilot effort to clean up the Rouge River, a large tributary of the Detroit River. Then the environmentally minded chairman of Ford Motor Company, William Clay Ford, Jr., announced that he would clean up the company's historic Rouge Plant, making it a model of sustainable development. Before long, civic activists launched a campaign to pick up garbage on Belle Isle, the largest island in the Detroit River and the heart of the city's beleaguered park system.

Then business leaders teamed up with environmental activists and local philanthropists to launch something they called the Southeast Michigan Greenways Initiative. It is a visionary plan to create a network of trails and other greenways throughout Detroit and its suburbs, especially along its rivers. Next General Motors, the largest manufacturing corporation in the world, announced that it was moving its world headquarters to the shining Renaissance Center office complex on the Detroit River.

Momentum was definitely building for change.

An International Effort

Peter Stroh, scion of the brewing family and ardent advocate for the outdoors, recalls hearing more and more people beginning to talk about the Detroit River in the mid-1990s. "The fact is it was a grimy place and it was getting grimier until we all said, 'Whoa, this can't go on,"' says Stroh, who grew up on the shores of Lake St. Clair, which feeds into the Detroit River. A group of civic leaders asked Stroh to chair the Greater Detroit American Heritage River Initiative. A few years ago, Stroh and friends were successful in gaining federal American Heritage River status–and accompanying federal dollars–for the Detroit River. Last July, the Canadian government made the Detroit a Canadian Heritage River as well.

Planning to save the Detroit River focused not just on putting strips of green under public control, though that was part of the vision. In addition, organizers want to encourage factories and other private landholders to put conservation easements on their property that borders the river.

The effort got a major boost last December when dignitaries from Canada, the United States, and the state of Michigan came together in a nearby boathouse to celebrate the creation of the first international wildlife refuge in North America–along the banks of the Detroit River. The gathering of more than 100 community leaders, national politicians, regulators, and scientists from both countries was a testament to the strong appeal of the river as a living refuge from urban industrial life. They shared a vision for restoring the river's shoreline through a patchwork of government ownership and private easements or other conservation commitments. And they identified Humbug Marsh and Island as key pockets of green worth preserving.

At the meeting, Simon Llewellyn, director of the environmental and conservation branch of Environment Canada's Ontario region, observed, "As we've lost wetlands over the years to development, the ones that remain become very precious." He looked out the window at the river. "They are wildlife jewels. When you've lost so much, it's very, very important to protect and conserve those that remain."

Congressman John Dingell is the senior member of the U.S. House of Representatives and one of the most influential Democrats in Congress. He represents the factory towns that embrace the lower Detroit River and surround the Humbug Marsh. Dingell's hard work brought swift approval by the House of Representatives of the legislation creating the wildlife refuge. Michigan's Senator Debbie Stabenow, who carried the bill through the Senate, caught an early morning flight from Washington for the dedication.

Dingell received a standing ovation when he stepped to the podium before an enthusiastic hometown crowd. "We have to keep up the quality of life downriver," said Dingell. "We can have thriving industry, recreation, and at the same time preserve wildlife."

The Honorable Herb Gray, deputy prime minister of Canada, also was on hand to fete the new wildlife refuge. Gray, whose job is equivalent to the U.S. vice president's, grew up on the Detroit River. The appropriately gray-suited senior politician still lives within view of the river and delights in watching boats gather in the shadow of the Detroit and Windsor skylines to fish the annual walleye run each spring.

"For some, the Detroit River may be a border between the United States and Canada," Gray says. "For the first settlers in this region, it was not a border. It was a shared mode of transportation. It underscored the importance of cooperation. And for us today it is our shared environment . . . It is a powerful magnet that draws us together socially, physically, and environmentally."

Feeding the Spirit and the Economy

The Detroit River sits at the intersection of the Atlantic and Mississippi flyways. Every year an estimated three million ducks, geese, swans, and coots migrate through the region. That includes about 300,000 diving ducks, which contribute to a $22 million waterfowl hunting industry in the region. Birdwatching and photography of birds contribute another $200 million, according to government estimates.

And that is only the start of the economic benefits that flow directly from the wildlife on the river. Each spring, hundreds of thousands of anglers descend on the river and Lake St. Clair as an estimated ten million walleye ascend the river from Lake Erie to spawn. Walleye are among 65 kinds of fish and 29 species of waterfowl that live along the river, in places like Humbug Marsh. Another 150 bird species nest near the river. Without Humbug and a few other small pockets of wetlands on the Canadian side of the river and its islands, the birds might have nowhere to feed. The fish might have nowhere to spawn.

For Bruce Manny, a biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, the bald eagles swooping overhead are the most awesome aspect of Humbug Marsh. "I've seen as many as three at a time doing aerial acrobatics," he says. "Their very presence shows that the river is cleaner than it once was. They are a living reminder that the fight is worth fighting, and that those who care about improving the environment are winning."

For Steve Gronda, chief of the Wyandot of Anderdon Nation, it is the red-tailed hawks that make Humbug special. The birds are a symbol of his people, who lived on the river for thousands of years before Europeans arrived. Now, Humbug is the only part of the shoreline that his ancestors might recognize. Gronda still likes to hunt duck and fish there. He strongly supports TPL's efforts to purchase Humbug and another chunk of nearby land on a Detroit River tributary called Marsh Creek. The land, known as Six Points, holds the remains of hundreds of Wyandot going back thousands of years. Though the burial ground is now surrounded by brick apartment complexes, it remains a 15-acre thicket of reeds and water.

On a clear fall day Gronda walked across the old burial ground with Kay McGowan, spokeswoman for the Wyandot tribe, which has approximately 800 members. She mentioned that in the Wyandot tradition, after a person's remains are buried there is a large feast. "The soul is said to go to the western door, to the spirit world, on the wings of the red-tailed hawk," she explained.

Nearby, where the creek crosses a road, a couple from Detroit stops to fish one fall afternoon. Asayann Martin and Jerry Burrell say they drive down there about twice a month, spring through fall, to cast their lines for bass, bluegills, and suckers. "It's peaceful," Martin says. "Not a whole lot of noise. You get your thoughts together." Bruce Jones, Humbug's longstanding champion, stands nearby, listening. "That's why we need to save these places," he whispers. "For people like them."

Emilia Askari is a prize-winning journalist who has covered environment and public health issues in the Midwest for more than a decade. She lives in the Detroit area and is a former president of the Society of Environmental Journalists.