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Effort underway to recognize bay as national reserve

By Heather Graves

GREEN BAY – A regional effort is underway to designate the Bay of Green Bay, the world’s largest freshwater estuary, as a national reserve – the next step in the region’s 30-plus year effort to clean up, restore and protect the bay.

The University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, in partnership with local and national agencies, is leading the charge in pursuing the National Estuarine Research Reserve (NERR) designation through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

NERR is a national network of 29 sites across the coastal United States, including the Great Lakes, designed to protect and study estuaries and their coastal wetlands.

“The Bay of Green Bay NERR designation process began with a letter of support from the governor to NOAA,” said Emily Tyner, UW-Green Bay director of freshwater strategy. “That kicked off the process, and we are currently pursuing designation in close partnership with NOAA.”

Tyner said the first major milestone is to select a site for the NERR.

“This includes the built infrastructure and the land and water areas,” she said. “The next major milestone is writing a management plan to guide the work of the NERR once it is established.”

Tyner said with the designation comes at least $1 million a year focused on education and research.

“We see a Green Bay NERR as being a place to convene around water and address water issues and challenges,” she said. “The visitor center will include classroom space, labs for science, interactive exhibits, meeting rooms, potentially dorms for visiting researchers and a boat launch.”

Though the physical location of the NERR will be somewhere within the Bay of Green Bay, Tyner said it will serve the broad Northeast Wisconsin area.

“That means partnerships with K-12 school districts from Marinette to the City of Green Bay and up Door County, and programming offered to all of Northeast Wisconsin,” she said. “A designation will help elevate the profile of the bay and bring national and international attention to all the great water-focused work in the region.”

An aspect Tyner said is important is the designation is a non-regulatory initiative, which means no new regulations will be imposed because of the designation.

“People can still hunt, fish, kayak, etc. in the same way because of the reserve,” she said. “The Bay of Green Bay is the world’s largest freshwater estuary, and the NERR will be a way to celebrate the way that water is part of the fabric of our region.”

Tyner said the designation will have a positive impact on tourism as another way to attract visitors to the region.

“For example, we recently spoke with a NERR in Florida, Apalachicola, and they get 300,000 visitors each year,” she said. “There is that same potential with a Bay of Green Bay NERR.”

As for ecological research, each reserve in the NERR system collects water and biological samples that are organized at a national level to check the health of estuaries around the country.

“We’d contribute to that national network of data, in addition to pursuing our own focused research projects,” Tyner said. “Already research teams from NOAA, the EPA and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee are doing work in the bay. A NERR will be an organizing force to ensure that research isn’t duplicitous and that any unanswered questions are being pursued.”

To help spread awareness and support of the NERR initiative, virtual kickoff events are being held from 4-5 p.m. Monday, April 12, and from 7-8 p.m. Thursday, April 15.

For more information on the event visit uwgb.edu/national-estuarine-research-reserves.

Sen. Tammy Baldwin and Rep. Mike Gallagher will take part in the events, and a live Q&A will be held at each.

“I know how important the Bay of Green Bay is to Northeastern Wisconsin, the region and Lake Michigan,” Baldwin said. “The designation of a NERR will bring critical resources and expertise to Green Bay’s freshwater estuary. This exciting opportunity will help folks in Northeastern Wisconsin continue to prioritize water research and education throughout the region, while also improving public health and supporting the innovative work being done to protect our freshwater resources, including the Great Lakes, for future generations to come.”

Organizers are working toward a goal of designation by the end of 2024.

“We are taking a holistic approach in planning and thinking about the impact of a Bay of Green Bay NERR,” Tyner said. “That means considering all the ways water touches our lives – cultural, economic, educational, recreational, ecosystem, civic – and designing the reserve in a way that celebrates all those aspects. Because this is being designed from the ground up, we have an opportunity to think intentionally about what we want a Bay of Green Bay NERR to look like and ensure there is broad regional participation in the process.”

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