Fall/Winter 2010

Sue O’Halloran (left), coastal trainer with the newly designated Lake Superior National Estuarine Research Reserve, confers with Matt Chasses of NOAA and Christine Ostern, the Douglas County conservationist, while visiting just a small area in the 16,697-acre reserve. Photo: Patrick Robinson, University of Wisconsin-Extension.
Sea Grant Research

Sea Grant is Key Partner in New Lake Superior Estuarine “Living Laboratory”

By Moira Harrington

This year, Wisconsin got an extra treat right around Halloween. Oct. 26 was the designation ceremony of the Lake Superior National Estuarine Research Reserve (LSNERR) located on the Wisconsin side of the St. Louis River, which divides Wisconsin and Minnesota at the western end of Lake Superior.

The LSNERR is now part of the National Estuarine Research Reserve program, funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and encompassing 1.3 million acres nationwide. Wisconsin’s reserve means a $500,000 annual infusion from the federal government. That money will be augmented by state resources and will have a multiplier effect – creating jobs, attracting additional funding and enhancing Wisconsin’s reputation as a hub for Great Lakes conservation efforts.

“This is a big deal,” said UW Sea Grant’s Gene Clark, who is based in Superior at the heart of this new living laboratory. He noted the lab will yield useful results not only for the Badger and Gopher states, but the Great Lakes Basin and nation as well.

Patrick Robinson, a freshwater estuary specialist with the UW-Extension who has shepherded the project through the designation process, echoes Clark’s comment, “It’s a great opportunity to capture federal resources to do research, education and outreach. This is a real feather in Wisconsin’s cap because it’s only the 28th estuary reserve in the country and only the second freshwater reserve in the nation.” At 16,700 acres, the LSNERR dwarfs the other freshwater site, Ohio’s 571-acre Old Woman Creek on Lake Erie. All national reserves, regardless of size, are charged with protecting varied biogeographic regions through long-term research, water-quality monitoring, education and coastal stewardship.

The LSNERR mirrors the national program with its specific goals: research and monitoring to increase the understanding of Lake Superior freshwater estuaries and coastal ecosystems; educating youth, students, community members and visitors about Lake Superior freshwater estuaries and coastal resources and improving their ability to address coastal issues; increasing community leaders’ and other decision makers’ ability to address critical Lake Superior coastal management issues; and protecting and enhancing the ecological health of the St. Louis River Watershed and Lake Superior coastal habitats.

Wisconsin’s reserve is also similar to others in that, according to Clark, “It represents all kinds of areas, from the almost-pristine natural areas all the way to working waterfronts.”

“Not surprisingly,” Robinson said, “Sea Grant is a key partner” in the reserve that connects NOAA’s core goals to diverse local partners digging into “so much more than can ordinarily be done because this (the reserve) is leveraging financial and human resources.”

In fact, Sea Grant is using the impetus of the LSNERR to kick-start a dual-state project, the first of its kind, between Minnesota and Wisconsin. While the wide-ranging effort is set within the reserve, it also will go beyond to encompass the entire St. Louis River estuary. Plus, said Janet Silbernagel, chair of the Conservation and Biology Sustainable Development Program and a landscape architecture professor at UW-Madison and Wisconsin’s lead project investigator, “The work we’re doing, connecting landscape and aquatic research around the estuary to innovative learning tools, we hope will be a prototype that could be applied to other places.”

The Minnesotan part of the project is to apply models of stress on the estuary’s water quality. Silbernagel’s part is to build spatial literacy, which she defined as gaining an understanding of a region’s geography, including its natural environment, industry, culture, history – and connections of those factors – to deepen knowledge of a place.

“It’s a counter response to the tendency for youth and others to want to ‘save the rainforest’ without even knowing the birds within their own backyard,” she said.

The Wisconsin team will build this place-based learning through multifaceted land-, ship- and Internet-based outreach and collaborative learning activities that target youth, educators, citizens, managers and local decision makers. These learning tools will include an online “deep map” that incorporates vignettes of local communities, reality-based games delivered through hand-held mobile devices, geo-tours of the estuary and an array of complementary online resources.

To learn more about the LSNERR, including its five-year management plan, please visit nerrs.noaa.gov/Doc/PDF/Reserve/LakeSuperiorNERR.pdf.

The Aquatic Sciences Center is the administrative home of the
University of Wisconsin Sea Grant Institute & University of Wisconsin Water Resources Institute.

©2011 University of Wisconsin Board of Regents