Gibraltar Bay Unit

Of the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge

November 12th, 2020

Host: Ben Fogt

With John Hartig

Gibraltar Bay Unit Of The Detroit International Wildlife Refuge

2020, Ben Fogt with John Hartig

What's the Deal, Grosse Ile?


[0:00] [Ben Fogt] This is episode 7 of what's the deal Grosse Ile a podcast focusing on the people, places and history that make Grosse Ile.

[0:10] I'm Ben Fogt.

[0:11] Today I'm speaking with John Hartig. John is a difficult person to introduce because there will always be a lot left out. I'll include a link to his website in the episode description.

[0:21] John is a visiting scholar at the University of Windsor's Great Lakes Institute for Environmental Research and an author of books about the Great Lakes and freshwater ecosystem conservation.

[0:32] What is probably most important for our topic today though is that he was part of the group that set up the Detroit International Wildlife Refuge in the late 90s into the early 21st century.

[0:43] I wanted to ask him about grew seals Gibraltar Bay unit of The Refuge.

[0:48] I'm confident that you're going to join me in wanting to hear more from John about the rest of the Refuge in future episodes.

[0:55] I want to thank you for taking the time to help us know more about the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge, John. Thanks for being on What's the Deal, Grosse Ile?

[John Hartig] My pleasure so nice to be with you and spend some time on this important topic.

[1:09] [B] Yes well as an Islander, it's sometimes easy to forget that grow seals in the middle of an International Wildlife Refuge. Just how big is it and how have pieces of property become part of the Refuge?

[J] Well think about creating an international Wildlife Refuge. That's no small task but no one organization, no one entity can own everything. So right from the get-go, right from the very beginning in 2001 it was founded on partnerships. The Refuge started out and we looked at some lands that were already sort of in conservation but we could make some improvements. So early on the US Fish and Wildlife Service signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources so the Pointe Moulillee State Game Area and the Erie State Game Area are on this US Registry of lands for the International Wildlife Refuge. Now we wanted to show people how we're working together. We're not all working separately. Of course Pointe Moulillee has places like Stony Island and it has Celeron Island in it. So those are technically part of the Refuge.

[2:27] They're owned by Michigan DNR but they're cooperatively managed in the spirit of the Refuge. So there are places. We started out looking at some industrial properties. So think of Henry Ford and down in Monroe at the mouth of the River Raisin. There was Ford Marsh. It was beautiful. And so back then Ford and ACH, Automotive Components Holdings Inc. donated 240 acres of the East Marsh to The Refuge in the spirit of it. Think of DTE Energy and power plants. And so early on,

[3:07] at Fermi power plant, they only use a very small footprint for producing power and they have lots of buffer around it and so we could come in and better manage that for wildlife for habitat for conservation.

[B] But they still own the property then.

[J] They own the property. We cooperatively manage it. So we signed a Cooperative Management Agreement for that. Go 25 years we could up it at the end of that. So a whole host of different creative tools to build a refuge. So right now there's about 18 thousand five hundred acres of land devoted to conservation and outdoor recreation. There's about, oh I would say to you, about 4800 in Canada, about 3800 by Essex Region Conservation Authority. For people who know the river, White Sands and Holiday Beach

Nature Area Conservation Area would be two that are in part of that.

[4:07] And then City of Windsor has about a thousand acres. Places like Ojibwe Prairie, one of the last remaining tallgrass prairies in Southwestern Ontario and then there's the US Fish and Wildlife Service. The Fish and Wildlife Service own and cooperatively manage about fifty-eight hundred acres. You add that up and you say eighteen thousand five hundred acres is not a big number but it's not big relative to National Wildlife Refuges in Alaska but if you think about it, if you look at the population, the human population of Windsor and it's metropolitan area, the Detroit metropolitan area, and Toledo and its metropolitan area, there's nearly 7 million people in a 45-minute drive.

[4:54] Really cool. What an opportunity to bring conservation to cities and to make nature part of everyday urban life.

[B] Yeah. It's definitely a unique opportunity and it's certainly one of those things that makes Grosse Ile a very unique place, in the world for that matter.

[J] Yeah. Right in the middle of the Refuge.

[B] Right so the Gibraltar Bay Unit is probably what most Grosse Ile residents think of when we think of the Wildlife Refuge. That seems to be the part of Grosse Ile that's devoted to The Refuge. Is that the only part? Are there other pieces of the township that, like I'm thinking about Hennepin Point for instance,

[J] Yeah. Right now that is the only one on Grosse Ile proper.

[5:44] As I mentioned to you, like Stony Island and Celeron Island are part of the spirit and intent of the Refuge, owned by Michigan DNR but cooperatively managed. Think of calf Island and Sugar Island.

[5:58] They are owned by the US Fish and Wildlife Service and certainly many people know Sugar because of swimming at the beach in the summertime. But Hennepin point is owned by BASF and of course that has some industrial history there and some issues that have to be dealt with before anything could be done with that.

[B] So the Gibraltar Bay Unit then, for anyone who's not aware. It's down off of East River Road, next to the airport. It's on the west side of the road. It's got a gate that's open from dusk till dawn, or from dawn till dusk rather.

[J] Dawn till dusk, 365 days a year. It is amazing. It is such a cool thing. It has an Old Quarry in there at one time on Grosse Ile and so it's filled up and it's like a little pond in there now. And it has all those coastal wetlands on the Gibraltar Bay. It has trails. It has wildlife observation decks. It has a photography blind. It has trails. It's stewarded in a partnership among the Grosse Ile Nature and Land Conservancy and the US Fish and Wildlife Service. So it is a gem. If you want a up north experience close to home, it's Gibraltar Bay Unit.

[7:23] [B] I remember a couple of years ago at least, of course before COVID, we went on a Sunday I think. The gates that go over to the airport property were open for a tour. So we went with a wildlife officer of some sort and took a tour that went all the way down to the sea plane landing I believe. Are programs like that happening these days?

[J] Not right now you know, but pre-COVID there were lots of things going on out there, like nature hikes and Environmental Education things and the tour that you were on. There's a Council Ring there and they've done some things you know around the history of Native Americans in the area and the Wyandotte Nation. So that will all come back once we get beyond COVID.

[B] A question that I think comes up for most people, at least it does for me a lot, is why is it called a "Unit".

[J] Well, think of the Detroit River National Wildlife Refuge. It's part of a the National Wildlife Refuge System, refuges all over the country for conservation and outdoor recreation. But I think of this, Detroit is older than the United States, founded in 1701, and we are

[8:51] 319 years old. So think of how much land is already tied up. To get a whole bunch of land that's all contiguous, part of one thing, would be pretty hard. So in National Wildlife Refuge System language, they have "units" and they are sometimes discreet

pieces of property that are managed as part of the Refuge. So there's a number of units stretching from down near the Ohio border and Erie Marsh all the way up to the the border between Detroit and Downriver.

[9:31] [B] Sure and so the Gibraltar Bay unit then, it seems like it might have been part of the Naval Air Station back back when that, what it started in the late 20s I believe?

[J] Yes, 1927 it started. Just think of it. It was part of the US Navy and a seaplane base and they trained pilots and so it has that long history of being a Naval Air Station and that land was part of the Naval Air Station so it just you can imagine to have military operations on a piece of property for, let's just say, 80, 90 years and you can imagine some of those years. There were some issues of what was left behind. And so one of the early things we did at the Gibraltar Bay unit partnership between the US Fish and Wildlife Service and Grosse Ile Nature and Land Conservancy, the late Bruce Jones, Dr. Bruce Jones, well-known on the island, is we brought in the Navy Seabees. The Navy Seabees are a really creative military arm. When the Marines go abroad say, they go abroad it takes two battalions of Navy Seabees to

[10:50] prepare the way for one battalion of Marines. So who builds the bridges? Who builds the houses? Who provides potable water? Who does the runways? I mean they are civil engineers. They are construction trades people. They know how to get things done. So we had one at Selfridge Air Force Base and we were able to convince them to come down. And the shoreline, it was left you can imagine what was out there you know there was all kinds of military debris and everything like that so we brought him the Seabees and we said we want to clean this up. We want to restore a habitat. We spent three days with heavy equipment pulling stuff, everything from airplane engines to empty ammunition boxes to Gunner chairs and everything else. We have this mound that was larger than a two-story house of stuff. And then we couldn't get rid of it because we had to have a military historian come in because what did you just find and so we have to go through that whole process but.

[11:57] That cleanup was a really innovative partnership and then that led to restoring the shoreline. So we, Grosse Ile Nature and Land Conservancy, the township, the Fish and Wildlife Service chased some money and brought in a couple of hundred thousand dollars to take that shoreline and recreate a more natural shoreline that would support Gibraltar Bay. It's a Coastal Wetland habitat. So we did that and then eventually EPA in 1972 took over from the US Navy. They acquired it. They were the Large Lakes Research Station there on Groh Road near Meridian and they're the ones that now have left. But they were there so they were the steward of it and they worked with US Army Corps of Engineers to clean it up to Federal standards. And then that ended in the 1990s. Sort of the mid the late 90s, and then it was transferred over to the Refuge to become part of the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge. But every step of the way, Grosse Ile Nature and Land Conservancy has been there to help steward, to improve. The vision is to have this amazing place on Grosse Ile for Downriver. That it can inspire a sense of wonder for kids to come and learn about nature, all

[13:25] right in your backyard.

[B] I think I'm just going to cut off right here and I'm going to drive down there.

[J] Great. You should. Think about it. I mean you know anyone who fishes the Detroit River knows Gibraltar Bay. I mean you can get some monster bass out of there and there's pike and that means it's a great place to fish. So Gibraltar Bay is a spawning, a nursery grounds for many fishes. Then just think of these bird migrations. We are the intersection of the Atlantic and Mississippi flyways and they need places to stop and rest and feed. Well the Uplands of those 40 acres of Uplands are are stopover habitat for migratory Birds.

[B] Right now we're recording in November of 2020 and everyone's going over the toll bridge. I think it was just the other night, somebody mentioned that some kids that had come over for a football game, some of the players had never seen swans

[14:23] before and they came over the toll bridge and there were hundreds of swans, I'm sure. they're in the migration path right now on their way through.

[J] It's amazing. I mean just when the Canvasback come through and it is just... And starting in the fall when you have the Raptor migration and 23 species of raptors cross the river and there's Detroit River Hawk Watch and it's just, I mean there is so much that's really unique about the place we call home.

[B] It's easy to take for granted since we drive through it everyday. It's amazing. So we've talked about what's going on here focusing mostly on what's on the island right now but we can't ignore that the new Visitor Center. The property has opened up, I think. Just a few weeks ago they opened up the dock for fishing and the trails for people to hike but the visitor center isn't open yet because of that one thing that we're all tired of. But soon very soon it will be open to us. So how does that change anything with what happens here in the unit or will that will that provide more staff to the program.

[J] I think it's going to be a game-changer.

[15:45] Think of the reputation that Downriver has and it's you know part of the Rust Belt and we have a polluted river in the Rust Belt and our Waterfront is dominated by industry. But now we have North America's only International Wildlife Refuge and The Visitor Center is there in Trenton but Humbug is partly in Gibraltar and partly in

[16:09] Trenton but the Humbug Marshe is truly unique with the kinds of species there and there's an International Convention called the RAMSAR Convention and it identifies wetlands of international importance. Not national importance, not state or provincial, not a local or regional.

[B] By convention you mean like a treaty?

[J] Like a treaty. So think of the RAMSAR Treaty. It's like a treaty okay and so there are about 2200 throughout the world there's a 41 or 42 in the United States and only one in Michigan, Humbug Marsh. It's pretty cool so that it's really something special and something that you can go and get close with nature ,like Gibraltar Bay Unit, but that is once the Visitor Center opens they're going to be adding more staff they will add more staff and park rangers, other staff, other maintenance persons Those people are not just for Humbug and Refuge Gateway. They're for the whole Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge. If you have a another park ranger you will see more

[17:33] programming at Gibraltar Bay Unit. You will see more educational things going on with schools and kids and bringing them. Learning outdoors that we've discovered is so so important. It also brings up a unique thought for the future and that is like if a school comes for a day trip, it starts out at the visitors center there. Think of a visitor center. You go to Yellowstone or Sleeping Bear and you first start at a visitor center and you learn about the national park, or the International Wildlife Refuge in our case, and then you go out and explore, learn, and you have fun. So you would start there if they had a day trip or even a half a day trip. You could start in The Visitor Center. You could go and learn and have fun at Humbug or the Refuge Gateway. You could come over to Gibraltar Bay Unit. There the options are amazing to give a compelling educational experience that is outdoors.

[B] The Visitor Center has added a new element of ecotourism to Downriver.

[18:44] It's been a long time coming. It sounds like it's taken about 20 years to get to this point but it's going to last for a very long time.

[J] It's going to last and it's going to improve over time, too. It's going to. Really, because it's all the things we do and I think then there's lots of wildlife refuges, 500-plus throughout the country and everything, but there's only a handful that are truly urban and this is an urban refuge. Eighty percent of all the United States and Canadian people now live in urban areas. Where's the next conservationist? Where's the next environmentalist? Where's the next sustainability entrepreneur going to come from? It's going to have to come mostly predominantly from urban areas so what an opportunity to

[19:42] inspire kids at a young age, to give them these compelling experiences, to develop a stewardship ethic so we don't go back to crisis management and have to deal with some of the things we've dealt with time and time again.

[B] Sure, and that segues to my next question which is What can we do as just ordinary citizens to support the Refuge?

[J] I think that one of the really important stewards of the Gibraltar Bay Unit is the Grosse Ile Nature and Land Conservancy. Get involved. Attend one of their meetings. Volunteer to do some of the open space work and Manchester woods and there's so many things you can get involved with. There's also a friends group

[20:29] for the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge. They're called the International Wildlife Refuge Alliance. You can volunteer for them as well. Friends of the Detroit River. You could get involved in some of the cleanups of the Detroit River. They do every spring a cleanup of the islands. You could get involved in that. You also can make the connection between schools on Grosse Ile and these amazing resources to take advantage of them as they open up and make sure they're part of the curriculum and make sure kids get exposed to this throughout their educational development.

[B] I imagine just making sure that we all visit and appreciate them and not just drive by.

[21:14] [J] Not just drive by. You have to go and see it, I think, if you could go out yet this fall, as we still the next few days are going to be awesome, go to Gibraltar Bay Unit there. You've got parking. Park your car. Take a hike. See it. You will be amazed. You will not be disappointed with what you see and the experience you have.

[21:36] [B] I'll tell you, your excitement for this is infectious and I'm glad we get to share this. We're at the end of what I've planned at this point. As I explained earlier, I like to give everyone a chance to give a wish to the island or to the folks of Grosse Ile. Do you have a wish you want to share with us?

[21:55] [J] Yes, I do. I think that since we've been talking about the Gibraltar Bay Unit and the Township has done an amazing job of greenways, think of the trails on the island and bicycling and walking and jogging and connecting the downtown area with some of these nature places and everything else. So if you come South on Meridian you have Groh Road on the greenway trail. And then you turn left and then you head east.

[22:28] Go past the Alpaca Farm and then you hit East River Road.

[22:34] That's it that's the end of The Greenway Trail. So since we're talking about Gibraltar Bay Unit, a low-hanging fruit is to extend that greenway trail from the corner of Groh Road and East River down to the Gibraltar Bay Unit to give more people an opportunity to bicycle and get there not just by car. I think that would be a really cool thing to do. That's my short-term wish. My big, big, long-term wish, if you want to think big, it would be, and you mentioned it, Hennepin Point. If we could do a partnership with BASF to clean that up and make that into a conservation area for the township that would be

[23:26] amazing. That would really... Think of if you go on kind of the western tip of Belle Isle and you sit out there on the point and you look at Downtown Detroit and the skyscrapers. You see the Ambassador Bridge. You see Windsor and that compelling view. If you went out on Hennepin Point and could sit, the view would be amazing, And that land is really important also to migratory birds and everything else so there's a lot that could be done there and that would be a long-term dream.

[B] I think anyone who goes to Bishop Park in Wyandotte and looks out over it and you think "Wow, if I could just get over there. Well I really appreciate this. Thanks so much for sharing about this today. I'm sure thousands of Islanders join me in anticipating the opening of The Refuge Gateway, the building and the programs that will come with it. It sure seems like the future of the Detroit River is really, really bright.

[J] It is and I look forward to seeing all of you at the Gibraltar Bay Unit and the Refuge Gateway and Humbug Marsh.

[B] Excellent. Thank you.

[24:39] See? Don't you just want to get down to the corner of Groh and East River and map out a bike path extension? I really want to thank John again for sharing about the Wildlife Refuge and Gibraltar Bay. It's a bit of a hidden gem on the island that more people should visit.

This episode is coming out on November 12th 2020 so you still have time to call in or email what you're thankful for for the Thanksgiving episode. Look for the email address and phone number on our Facebook page,

[25:09] And keep the suggestions, comments, and reviews coming in. Next week's episode, episode 8, will be with Tracey Pearce from the Grosse Ile Rotary Club. Tracey started a weekly video series on Facebook called Good News Grosse Ile. We're going to talk about Rotary and why everyone is sharing good news.

[25:26] What's the deal Grosse Ile is recorded and produced by me, Ben Fogt.

[25:30] You can keep in touch with me through the What's the Deal, Grosse Ile? Facebook page or email me at

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[26:07] Thanks for listening to What's the Deal, Grosse Ile?