St. Louis River island's ownership called into question

Establishing ownership of an unclaimed island is necessary for remediation work to proceed.

Island near Munger Landing.
Kevin Monahan kayaks along the shore of the small island near Munger Landing in the Wisconsin waters of the St. Louis River in April 2020.
Steve Kuchera / file / Duluth News Tribune
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ST. LOUIS BAY — The fate of a small, crescent-shaped island off Munger Landing in the Wisconsin waters remains undetermined as ownership remains up in the air.

The Douglas County land and development committee took no action to establish ownership of the unclaimed island after interests in the island were called into question.

The island is part of a remediation project in the St. Louis Bay to clean up polychlorinated biphenyls and dioxins in the sediment. The work is being undertaken by the Minnesota and Wisconsin DNRs, Army Corps of Engineers and Minnesota Pollution Control Agency to address water quality and degradation of aquatic and terrestrial habitats in the St. Louis River.

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources sought an affidavit to establish ownership of the island necessary to apply for permits for the work to proceed, said Jim Lemke, real estate section chief for the DNR. The permits require the riparian owner to sign off on the project.

While the island is listed in the county’s tax roll, there’s no evidence that Douglas County owns the island, said Carolyn Pierce, corporation counsel.


"From what we can tell, there hasn't been any owner of this island since the state of Wisconsin was created back in 1848,” Lemke said. “So not uncommon in the real estate industry. You see this quite a lot in the Mississippi River that you have islands that have formed after statehood or that just weren't claimed to the commission of public lands. They're kind of isolated, unknown islands."

Lemke said spoils from the cleanup work would be placed on the fringes of the island.

"According to some of our research … the small, crescent-shaped island that we're calling 'Unclaimed Island,' there is some documentation that it is owned by the Bureau of Land Management,” said Jenny Van Sickle of the public information division of Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission, which represents 11 bands of Lake Superior Ojibwe.

Van Sickle asked the committee to delay a decision on ownership until more research could be done. She said the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa would have interest in the island, which is part of the band’s migration story.

Lemke said while his research didn’t reveal any Bureau of Land Management interest in the island, Van Sickle’s request was reasonable.

"Would it be OK if we just passed on ownership to the DNR and let them deal with the other issues," Chair Keith Allen said. "To me, it doesn't matter. If they can use it to clean up the harbor it's great. If there's other issues with tribal matters, I don't want to get involved in that."

With the ownership of the island called into question, Pierce said it made sense to wait until matters are cleared up.

The committee voted Tuesday, March 29, to refer the matter to a future meeting when the issue is resolved between the Ojibwe people and the state.


"If we’re asserting it’s truly unclaimed, I suspect Fond du Lac will submit an affidavit as soon as possible, which could be positive for the remediation project going forward," Van Sickle said.

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Shelley Nelson is a reporter with the Duluth Media Group since 1997, and has covered Superior and Douglas County communities and government for the Duluth News Tribune from 1999 to 2006, and the Superior Telegram since 2006. Contact her at 715-395-5022 or
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