An effort is gaining steam to designate a broad area around Chequamegon Bay and the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore as a national marine sanctuary.

Supporters say the official designation, which will be decided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, would help draw attention and research money and boost conservation efforts for the portion of Lake Superior off Wisconsin's shore.

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The area is rich in coastal wetlands, important fish spawning habitat and bird nesting areas, historic shipwrecks, unique sea caves and Native American history. All 40 species of fish that swim in Lake Superior use the area at some point in their lives. And Wisconsin's only population of endangered piping plovers nests on Long Island.

"This is a really important part of the lake. Our communities tend to be so tied to the lake through tourism and fishing that the lake is a huge part of our economy and our lives," said Karin Kozie of Washburn, a volunteer on the local steering committee advancing the idea. "This is a bunch of us who are very passionate about the lake. It's hard not to be when you live by it."

There currently are 14 national marine sanctuaries across the U.S., mostly along ocean coasts with one on Michigan's Thunder Bay on Lake Huron. Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary in Washington, for example, covers the ocean waters off Olympic National Park.

Another sanctuary, nominated by the state of Wisconsin and supported by Gov. Scott Walker, is under consideration for waters of Lake Michigan offshore from Port Washington, Wis., aimed at protecting historic shipwrecks.

Supporters of the Lake Superior plan - who have formed the National Marine Sanctuary Nomination Initiative steering committee - say they haven't decided the exact boundaries to be nominated. One plan would have it run from the Montreal River on the Michigan state line west to near Port Wing, where Douglas and Bayfield counties meet, and extend out to include all of Wisconsin's waters of Lake Superior between those points.

Sanctuary doesn't restrict fishing, boating

Supporters say some people have at first been wary of the word "sanctuary." But, unlike a bird sanctuary where hunting might be banned, marine sanctuaries come with little overt federal regulation.

"This is a new opportunity for us to be able to nominate. And, knowing the resources we have here, it seems like such a great opportunity," said Erica Peterson of Bayfield, another member of the steering committee. "But we want to make it clear in this definition a sanctuary is a sort of spiritual place to do what you enjoy doing... whether it's fishing or whatever. It's not a place with a sign that says 'stay out.' "

Supporters are adamant that the marine sanctuary designation will not mean "another layer of bureaucracy or regulation over the area," said Neil Howk, assistant chief of interpretation for Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, based in Bayfield.

The designation won't ban fishing, motorboats or other traditional uses. The state of Wisconsin would remain in charge of all water and fish management in the lake but might share management of historic resources, such as shipwrecks, under a sanctuary designation, supporters note.

"It's aimed at raising awareness of the unique qualities of the area... more as an education tool than anything else," Howk said. "A designation would say that this entire region of the lake, not just the small part inside the National Lakeshore, is important for its cultural resources and its natural resources.''

Local support building

NOAA in the past tried to designate sanctuaries based on their experts' own criteria. But the federal agency, part of the U.S. Commerce Department, wasn't always welcomed with open arms. Now, it's NOAA policy to leave it up to local residents to nominate an area. NOAA won't consider any area without strong local support.

The steering committee hopes to document that support and submit the nomination by this summer, with NOAA making the final decision sometime later.

The effort started last year, with the committee gradually building local backing. The Ashland City Council on Tuesday voted to back the marine sanctuary designation. The City of Bayfield is on board, too, and other communities are weighing their support.

Both the Bad River and Red Cliff bands of Lake Superior Chippewa have members on the steering committee and "have been supportive," Kozie said.

Proponents say they would expect the marine sanctuary designation to work much like the National Estuarine Research Reserve System designation for the lower St. Louis River in Superior. That designation, also under NOAA, was approved in 2010 and is credited with helping attract both research and cleanup dollars for the Twin Ports.

Having NOAA's backing would help draw research expertise and money to study critical problems facing Lake Superior, such as invasive species and climate change. The agency probably would have a small staff stationed in the area; the Lake Huron sanctuary has 13 employees.

"Research and education is really going to to be the key to conservation going forward," Peterson said. "We need all the help we can get protecting what is so valuable to us."

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