A Great Lakes Moment from John Hartig

A Great Lakes Moment from John Hartig
November 13, 2018 John Hartig
Photo by Michael Sisinger via John Hartig

International Award for Excellence in Waterfront Development for Refuge Gateway and Humbug Marsh

Editor’s Note: Great Lakes Now Contributor John Hartig is the former Refuge Manager for the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge.

The Waterfront Center, a nonprofit organization established in 1981, promotes waterfront development for community enhancement and enrichment. It is based on the belief that water is the defining force that fundamentally shapes the character of each place it touches.

Image courtesy of fws.gov

Artist rendering of the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge Gateway Visitor Center, courtesy of fws.gov

The Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge is based on a similar belief. It has protected Humbug Marsh in Trenton and Gibraltar, Mich. and designed and developed the adjacent Refuge Gateway as a riverfront gathering place for people and wildlife as part of an effort to promote conservation in the region, revitalize the area, and accelerate the sustainability transition.  Partners in the project were U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Wayne County, Hamilton Anderson Associates, International Wildlife Refuge Alliance, and Downriver Community Conference.

Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge Gateway Boat Dock and Fishing Per, Image by fws.gov

In recognition of excellence in waterfront design and development, The Waterfront Center recently gave the Refuge Gateway and Humbug Marsh an Honor Award for protecting Humbug Marsh from development, cleaning up and restoring the Refuge Gateway, and creating a destination of choice that inspires an outdoor sense of wonder.

In many cities, waterfronts were abandoned and underutilized.  The Waterfront Center has championed transformation of waterfronts as a key element of vibrant communities, reaping a broad range of social, economic and environmental benefits.  As part of its educational and advisory services, the Center holds an annual awards program that recognizes excellence in waterfront design and development.  An interdisciplinary jury of professional planners, designers, city officials, and community, business, and development representatives selected the award winners based on the following criteria: sensitivity of the design to water; quality and harmony of design; civic contribution; environmental values; enrichment; and degree of difficulty.

The 410-acre Humbug Marsh is the last mile of natural shoreline on the U.S. mainland of the Detroit River.  Slated for development in 1997, citizens and conservation organizations like the Friends of the Detroit River, Detroit Audubon, the Sierra Club, and many more spoke out in opposition to private development for housing and a marina.  With the help of many partners, Humbug Marsh was purchased in 2004 to become the cornerstone of the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge.

Today, there are 2,331 Ramsar Wetlands of International Importance throughout the world, 38 in the United States, and only one in Michigan – Humbug Marsh.  It is considered an internationally important wetland because of its ecological importance in the Detroit River corridor and the Great Lakes Basin Ecosystem.  Oak trees have been aged at over 300 years old which means they were alive when Cadillac founded Detroit in 1701.

Photo by fws.gov

Oak Hickory Forest at Humbug Marsh, Photo by fws.gov

Indeed, the Michigan Natural Features Inventory has ranked this community as globally imperiled.  It serves as vital habitat for 51 species of fish, over 90 species of plants, 154 species of birds, seven species of reptiles and amphibians, and 37 species of dragonflies and damselflies.  Examples of unique species include: bald eagles; two dragonfly species (i.e., Elusive Clubtail and Russet-Tipped Clubtail) that are listed as “Michigan Species of Special Concern” and “Species of Greatest Conservation Need” by Michigan’s Wildlife Action Plan; the eastern fox snake that is designated as a “Threatened Species” in Michigan; a native Michigan orchid called Oval Ladies’ Tresses that is designated as a “Threatened Species” in Michigan and indicative of pre-settlement conditions; and a rare sedge called the Hairy-Fruited Sedge that is listed as a “special concern” species in Michigan and is also indicative of pre-settlement conditions.

Concurrent with the fight to save Humbug Marsh, the adjacent 44-acre industrial brownfield was purchased in 2002 by Wayne County to become the Refuge Gateway and home of the refuge’s visitor center.  For 44 years Chrysler operated a manufacturing plant on this site for automotive brakes, blended oils, paints, and more.  It was cleaned up to industrial standards and sat vacant as an industrial brownfield for 12 years until purchased by Wayne County.  It then took 10 years to further clean up the site for public use and restore habitats.

Through the preservation of Humbug Marsh and the cleanup and restoration of the Refuge Gateway there has been a net gain of over 16 acres of wetlands in an area (Detroit River) that has lost 97 percent of its coastal wetlands to development, daylighting of Monguagon Creek, restoration of 25 acres of upland buffer habitat, control of invasive plant species on over 50 acres of upland habitats, and control of invasive Phragmites along 2.5 miles of shoreline.  It has also resulted in merging the 44-acre Refuge Gateway with Humbug Marsh into one ecological unit and is helping create a truly exceptional outdoor recreational and conservation experience in Metropolitan Detroit.

Photo by Tandem via John Hartig

School Ship Dock and Fishing Pier, Photo by Tandem via John Hartig

Today, the cleanup and restoration of the Refuge Gateway represent the first project in the world to successfully cleanup an industrial brownfield to serve as an ecological buffer for a Ramsar Wetland of International Importance.

At the Refuge Gateway and Humbug Marsh you will soon be able to enjoy a 12,000-square-foot, Gold, LEED-certified, visitor center (with a wildlife observation room, two classrooms, a multi-purpose room, and one-third of the building devoted to hands-on and minds-on activities for children), a 740-foot dock for Michigan Sea Grant’s Great Lakes school ship that will use the adjacent waters as a living laboratory for children, a universally-accessible, 200-foot fishing pier in waters that support a high diversity of fish and that is widely acclaimed as part of the Walleye Capital of the World, a canoe and kayak launch, three wildlife observation decks, an outdoor environmental education classroom, and over three miles of hiking trails.  The area is now connected to more than 100 miles of greenway trails throughout Downriver.

This project is widely recognized as being transformational for metropolitan Detroit because it is helping change the perception of the Detroit River from that of a polluted “rust belt” river to one of an international wildlife refuge that reconnects people to nature, promotes outdoor recreation, improves quality of life, and enhances community pride.

Photo by Friends of the Detroit River via John Hartig

We Saved Humbug Marsh, Photo by Friends of the Detroit River via John Hartig

“The Waterfront Center was absolutely delighted that the 2018 Awards Jury selected the Refuge Gateway and Humbug Marsh to receive an Excellence on the Waterfront Honor Award,” said Ann Breen, co-director of The Waterfront Center.  “Preserving Humbug Marsh, securing a Ramsar Wetland of International Importance designation, and cleaning up an adjacent industrial brownfield sufficiently to serve as an ecological buffer for Humbug Marsh and for the refuge’s visitor center are truly significant accomplishments worthy of this international award.  The Refuge Gateway and Humbug Marsh are now the cornerstone of the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge and a model of public-private partnerships for bringing conservation to cities.  What a resource for those able to visit and enjoy!”

The Refuge Gateway and Humbug Marsh have been strategically-designed as a destination of choice that will provide exceptional conservation and outdoor recreational experiences, inspire a sense of wonder in children and families, and help develop the next generation of conservationists in urban areas because that is now where most people in North America live.  The receipt of this international award from The Waterfront Center for the Refuge Gateway and Humbug Marsh is being seen as a source of pride by many metropolitan Detroiters.

The grand opening of the Refuge Gateway and Humbug Marsh is scheduled for this coming spring.

Featured Image: Humbug Marsh at Sunset, Photo by Michael Sisinger via John Hartig


  1. Acknowledgement of Waterfront Development for the Refuge Gateway and Humbug Marsh by the Waterfront Center with an International Award is “Heraldic”! Too little is appreciated by the general public of the significance invested in this process. From the inception of the “International” Wildlife Refuge by the Honorable John D. Dingell, Dean of the U.S. House of Representatives, Deputy Prime Minister of Canada, Herb Gray, Greater Detroit American Heritage River Initiative Chairman, Peter Stroh and Dr. John H. Hartig, River Navigator, to the culmination of the “Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge”, we are solemnly indebted. One day, not too far into the Future, the “Public” will come to realize what has been accomplished here and what more is to come. The Canadian PNA (Priority Natural Area) on the Western Basin of Lake Erie is a testament to this concept. International acclaim for an “International” Wildlife Refuge is a fitting gesture of appreciation to those who made this possible!

  2. John Hartig 5 years ago

    Thanks Dick, especially for all the hard work you and other activists have put into building the refuge and bringing conservation to cities. It takes a village!

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