Kewaunee County Board votes against support for National Marine Sanctuary status
KEWAUNEE – If the waters off Kewaunee County eventually become part of the proposed Wisconsin-Lake Michigan National Marine Sanctuary, it'll happen without the support of the current County Board.
The board voted, 10-5, at its March 17 meeting against a resolution that would encourage the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to include the waters off the county as part of the sanctuary.
NOAA originally nominated an area containing 37 known and 80 possible shipwrecks within 1,075 square miles of Lake Michigan off Sheboygan, Ozaukee and Manitowoc counties to become a National Marine Sanctuary (essentially an underwater park or preserve) in October 2015.
The designation is meant to protect natural and other resources, such as shipwrecks, within the sanctuary while allowing divers to explore them. With growing support from a variety of Kewaunee County leaders, it later came up with a Plan B alternative that included an additional 185 square miles of water off Kewaunee County, containing at least one known wreck and possibly 15 others.
Then-Gov. Scott Walker squelched the nomination in 2018 because of concerns over "unnecessary bureaucratic red tape." But Gov. Tony Evers resuscitated it in November with the inclusion of the Kewaunee County waters.
The resolution came from the county's Executive Committee, which approved it in its November meeting. In that meeting, discussion centered on the benefits of being designated a national sanctuary versus possible overreach from the federal or state governments on regulatory matters that might affect how the lake waters are used.
Those same concerns were raised at the board meeting by several supervisors, who pointed to an opinion they requested from Corporation Counsel Jeffrey Wisnicky on the ramifications of sanctuary status.
Wisnicky wrote that the regulations appear to be narrowly drafted to "protect sanctuary resources and would have limited, if any, effect on recreational or commercial use of the waters." But Wisnicky also cautioned the regulations are subject to changes that could that could result in further restrictions.
"They tell you something, then a couple years down the road they can change it," Supervisor Joe Lukes said. "They're taking local control away."
Supervisor Lee Luft, one of the leaders in supporting the sanctuary designation, said strong support existed from the public and local community leaders. He and Supervisor Virginia Haske said the other such sanctuary on the Great Lakes, the Thunder Bay sanctuary off Alpena, Michigan, has existed for 17 years without further government regulation.
Haske also noted friends of hers from that area have said the sanctuary status has been very beneficial for bringing tourists, and Luft suggested a vacant building could be used to house a sanctuary visitor center similar to the one in Alpena.
"I think we need to spend more time speaking to the people of Alpena," Haske said.
"I think we'll be missing a huge opportunity to bring people into this county if we pass on this," Luft said.
However, Board Chairman Robert Weidner said the shipwrecks already are protected and questioned the benefit of sanctuary status, noting the county doesn't have an underwater dive shop within its borders. He also raised concern about future over-regulation by federal and state authorities.
"The benefits are somewhat questionable in my mind," Weidner said. "I would not condemn it as a really bad thing. But if we're taking a risk by turning it over to the federal government, I would not want to take that risk."
Voting in favor of the resolution were Luft, Haske and Supervisors Cory Cochart, Thomas Cretney and John Mastalir.
Contact Christopher Clough at 920-741-7952, 920-562-8900 or [email protected]
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This article originally appeared on Green Bay Press-Gazette: Kewaunee County Board votes against support for National Marine Sanctuary status