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Whitefish Point Management Plan Finalized, Released to Public

Two-year process yields creative solutions to long-standing problems

December 18, 2002 | By Jim Lively
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

MLUI/Jim Lively
  The management plan balances expanded visitor services at the Shipwreck Museum with preserving sensitive habitat for migrating birds.

The Michigan Audubon Society, the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have completed the final version of the joint “Human Use/Natural Resource Management Plan for Whitefish Point” negotiated last December. The final version incorporates comments from the public and final position statements from the three participating parties regarding a dispute over management of the 43-acre spit of land jutting into Lake Superior. The new management plan, which was negotiated with the assistance of the Michigan Land Use Institute as part of a court-ordered settlement, balances expanded visitor services at the popular shipwreck museum with preserving sensitive habitat for migrating birds.

In 1996 federal legislation transferred Whitefish Point to joint ownership by the Michigan Audubon Society (MAS), the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society (GLSHS), and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). In 1999, a long-running dispute between MAS and GLSHS over the development of Whitefish Point as a tourist attraction led to a lawsuit that focused on the proposed expansion of the existing shipwreck museum at the Point. In an out-of-court settlement, the parties agreed to hire an independent consultant to facilitate the cooperative development of a management plan that would resolve all disputes between them. In January 2002 the Michigan Land Use Institute was contracted to perform this service.

Plan Highlights
The Management Plan describes an agreed-upon policy for managing all outstanding issues between the three property owning groups, as well as many future concerns.
Below are some of the key elements of the Management Plan:

Habitat Creation: MAS is particularly concerned about the amount and quality of available habitat for birds that migrate through Whitefish Point. The Plan designates 26,940 square feet of new habitat to be created or restored, primarily on GLSHS property. The removal of much of the existing paved parking area in the interior of the site will also improve the site for birds.

Trail Plan: All of the groups involved expressed concern that visitors to the site who wish to view migrating birds or hike a scenic trail to the beach have been often blazing their own trail through important habitat. The Plan calls for the groups to work cooperatively to clearly mark trails for humans, and then to enforce strict rules keeping all people on those trails – including birdwatchers.

Enhanced Signage and Visitor Orientation: The Plan calls for many recommendations to improve the orientation of visitors to the site. Currently there is little signage or other guidance to indicate to visitors that there are three different organizations managing the Point, or to describe the significance of the Point for both maritime history and bird migration. A visitor orientation plaza, improved signage, and expanded interpretation will enhance visitors’ understanding of the Point’s significance.

Parking Improvements: The GLSHS has been concerned for many years that parking is inadequate for peak tourist times. The Plan relocates the majority of parking from the interior of the site to an existing lot directly south of the Point. Because the Point is literally the end of the road, it provides an opportunity to incorporate the existing road right-of-way into a parking lot immediately south of the Point. By utilizing the entire road right-of-way, and paving and striping the existing gravel lot, the Plan calls for expanding the total number of parking spaces by nearly sixty, yet with a net decrease in total paved surface. The Plan also includes a bus turnaround and calls for a small staff parking area and access drive for the GLSHS facilities.

Museum Expansion: The Plan resolves questions about the expansion of the existing museum facility by adjusting the southeast wing to preserve most of the habitat in that area. It also indicates that GLSHS will follow historic character guidelines established by the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) to ensure that the expansion will fit architecturally into the site. The expansion itself will provide a larger museum exhibit space, a Mariners Memorial, and a larger video theater.

Expanded Natural History Interpretation: The Plan acknowledges that birding activities and the natural history of the site have not been interpreted to the public as well as the maritime history. In recognition of this, a cooperative arrangement was established between the parties to utilize a reconstructed historic building on GLSHS property primarily for natural history interpretation.

Historic Character: In addition to architectural guidelines for the museum expansion, the GLSHS agreed to work with SHPO to conduct a site building use plan to ensure historic buildings are used appropriately and efficiently.

Oversight and Implementation: The USFWS now has an increased and clearer role in the oversight of future development at the Point. USFWS will control the pace of development to ensure that it does not exceed the pace of habitat creation, and will serve as the arbiter to determine if GLSHS and MAS are following the intent of the Plan. This clarification of oversight of future development may be the most significant component of the Plan, because it should help avoid future legal disputes between MAS and GLSHS.

Public Comments and Party Positions
Following a short but intense public comment period, the three property-owning organizations, along with the State Historic Preservation Office, reviewed those comments and made final changes to the Plan on December 6, 2002. The USFW has been summarizing the public comment and identifying where those comments influenced the plan, and had asked that the plan not be released until the public comment was incorporated. In addition, each of the negotiating parties included a final position statement describing their reasons for supporting the final plan. Although each party compromised on some of its positions, in the end all were able to support the Plan as an improvement to the site.

Next step: Implementation.
A Joint Committee will be responsible for implementing the Plan, which includes each of the negotiating parties, as well as these other, non-voting jurisdictions: Whitefish Point Bird Observatory, State Historic Preservation Office, Whitefish Township, Chippewa County Road Commission, and Michigan Department of Natural Resources. GLSHS is already seeking funds to construct larger wings, relocate and improve parking, and significantly enhance habitat. SHPO will have oversight of the architectural design of the buildings, and USFWS will oversee the parking location and creation of new habitat.

Jim Lively is the Michigan Land Use Institute’s planner. He served as the facilitator for the negotiations between the Michigan Audubon Society, the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. You can reach him at jim@mlui.org.

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