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Great Lakes Moment: Sugar Island is getting an ecological makeover

Great Lakes Moment: Sugar Island is getting an ecological makeover
August 2, 2021 John Hartig

Great Lakes Moment is a monthly column written by Great Lakes Now Contributor John Hartig. Publishing the author’s views and assertions does not represent endorsement by Great Lakes Now or Detroit Public Television.


Sugar Island sits like a gemstone on a jeweled necklace of islands surrounding the southern end of Grosse Ile – the largest island in the Detroit River. For nearly 80 years it entertained daytrippers as an amusement park and outdoor recreation destination.

Now preserved for conservation, Sugar Island is getting an ecological makeover.

The island is approximately 29 acres in size and located only a half mile west of the Canadian-U.S. border near the mouth of the river before it enters western Lake Erie. Sugar Island is considered part of the “conservation crescent” – a crescent-shaped archipelago of islands that wrap around the southern end of Grosse Ile, including Boblo, Stony, Sugar, Meso, Hickory, Celeron, Calf and Humbug islands.

The evolution of Sugar Island

Sugar Island got its name from a stand of sugar maple trees. During the 1880s, Sugar and nearby Hickory islands were popular recreational destinations where small pleasure boats would bring people for picnicking, camping and baseball.

Beginning in 1898, the amenities on the island were expanded, including a large dock, dance pavilion and restaurant. River passenger steamships like the Riverside, the Wyandotte, the Greyhound, Owana, City of Toledo and the Tashmoo would bring people from both Detroit and Toledo to the island for day trips.

The Owana would leave Detroit early in the morning, discharge some passengers for a holiday on Sugar Island, and then continue to Toledo with the balance of passengers. By the 1920s, a large roller coaster, a merry-go-round, a bath house and rowboat rentals established Sugar Island as a major weekend destination. Local Grosse Ile residents often refer to the years that followed as the golden era of Sugar Island.

However, during the 1940s the recreational facilities on Sugar Island fell into disrepair and were overshadowed by nearby Boblo Amusement Park. Various plans to revitalize the island were put forward, including by a group of African Americans who wanted to develop it into a resort and another group of developers from Toledo, yet none came to fruition. Sadly, in 1954 the dance pavilion burned to the ground and a visible connection to its illustrious past was lost.

In the decades that followed, there were several attempts to build a bridge to Sugar Island from Grosse Ile to allow for real estate development, but all were unsuccessful. By the early 2000s, the island gained a reputation as a party island, and township police were regularly dispatched to address alcohol and drug problems, and even a boat burning.

Then in 2011, Sugar Island was purchased by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to be part of the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge. The island was closed for a year by the USFWS to allow time to look at how it could be reopened and on what terms.

Following public meetings, the west beach of Sugar Island is open Memorial Day through Labor Day dawn to dusk. Swimming, picnicking, fishing and volleyball are allowed, but no alcohol or fires, and no access to the uplands. Limited hunting for deer, wild turkey, small game and migratory birds is allowed in season. Research and environmental education are allowed on the island under special use permits.

The USFWS purchased Sugar Island for conservation, because it provides important stopover habitat for birds on their annual migrations, and the shoals surrounding the island provide important spawning and nursery habitat for many fishes. It is now protected in perpetuity as part of the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge that is part of the National Wildlife Refuge System that spans over 850 million acres, including over 560 national wildlife refuges, seven national monuments and 38 wetland management districts.

“This project of working together to restore healthy habitats of the Detroit River is vitally important for people and wildlife, and at the core of why the Refuge was created,” noted Susan White, refuge manager of the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge. “It is an important step in the River’s ecological recovery, and we’re excited to see nature’s response.”

Detroit River cleanup leads to Sugar Island restoration

In 1985, the Detroit River was designated a Great Lakes Area of Concern, or pollution hotspot, through the U.S.-Canada Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. For each of the 43 Areas of Concern, a remedial action plan was developed by governments and other stakeholders to restore impaired beneficial uses, in other words making them clean enough to use safely for swimming, fishing and drinking.

One of the important beneficial use impairments identified in the Detroit River is loss of fish and wildlife habitat. For example, 97% of the historical coastal wetland habitat in the Detroit River has been lost to development.

In the early 2000s, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recruited Friends of the Detroit River to revitalize the remedial action plan and its companion Detroit River Public Advisory Council. Friends of the Detroit River and the Detroit River PAC worked with scientists, agencies and interested stakeholders to identify critical habitat restoration projects that, when implemented, would lead to removal of loss of fish and wildlife habitat as a “beneficial use impairment.”

Sugar Island is one of those habitat restoration projects deemed necessary for restoring the Detroit River. Initial assessments of the island found that 6 acres had eroded since 1937. Yes, you read that correctly – 20% of the island has eroded because of high water levels, and increasing intensity and frequency of storms. The goal of this project is to stabilize the shoreline and prevent further erosion of the island, as well as to restore coastal wetland and other habitats. Funding for the project has come from the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative through the U.S. EPA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Sugar Island habitat restoration plan (Image Credit: Friends of the Detroit River and SmithGroup)

The first steps in this project were to perform an investigation of Sugar Island and its nearshore areas, evaluate restoration options and determine feasibility. Technical assistance to the team was provided by SmithGroup and LimnoTech. These preliminary results and a conceptional restoration plan were shared in a public meeting in November 2018. The final design is now complete, all necessary permits have been awarded, and restoration is underway. E.C. Korneffel Company, the firm that did the habitat restoration of Stony and Celeron islands in the Detroit River, is doing the restoration of Sugar Island.

The final design includes a series of small islands or shoals that are arranged in a curvilinear fashion to create 21 acres of calm fishery habitat to serve as spawning and nursery grounds. The purpose of these small islands is to break the up to 4- to 5-foot strong waves that periodically pound and erode the south shore of the island. This will allow for formation of coastal wetland habitat that is in such short supply in the Detroit River. A one-half-acre, rock spawning reef will also be created off the southeast side of the island, specifically targeting walleye, lake sturgeon, lake whitefish and other lithophilic or rock-loving fishes.

Also being created is an emergent wetland shelf along the southern shore of Sugar Island and turtle, mudpuppy, bird and pollinator habitats.

“People familiar with the lower Detroit River have long awaited this project to begin – to both save the south end of the island from further erosion and create 21 acres of quality fish habitat,” said David Howell, chairperson of the Friends of the Detroit River. “Thanks to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy, and all the project stakeholders, this project is now becoming a reality.”

Wetland benefits

It is important to remember that we are all part of the Detroit River ecosystem and what we do to our ecosystem we do to ourselves. Also, restoration of the Detroit River ecosystem cannot be accomplished by any government, organization or corporation alone. It must become a shared responsibility.

Wetlands are often called nurseries of life because they provide habitat for thousands of aquatic and terrestrial plants and animals, including endangered and threatened species. They also help stabilize and maintain the water table by retaining water during dry periods and storing excess water during storm and flood conditions, minimize bank and shoreline erosion, serve as living filters by removing nutrients and sediments from upland runoff, and provide recreational opportunities like kayaking, fishing, birding and hunting, including inspiring a sense of wonder in nature lovers. Some wetlands function as sites for groundwater recharge, replenishing and purifying the water in aquifers.

But wetlands are also threatened ecosystems. All of us need to support efforts to restore wetlands like around Sugar Island and help educate all about the value and benefits of wetlands as part of caring for our ecosystem and home.

John Hartig is a board member at the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy. He serves as the Great Lakes Science-Policy Advisor for the International Association for Great Lakes Research and has written numerous books and publications on the environment and the Great Lakes. Hartig also helped create the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge, where he worked as the refuge manager until his retirement.


Catch more news on Great Lakes Now:

Great Lakes Moment: Ecosystem restoration needs more environmental justice

Great Lakes Moment: The US-Canada ecosystem-focused approach to restoration

Great Lakes Moment: Walleye frenzy on the Detroit River


Featured image: Sugar Island in the lower Detroit River (Photo Credit: Vicki Athens Photography)

4 Comments

  1. Chris Ferguson 2 months ago

    I remember well when the dance pavilion burned. The flames could be seen from many parts of Grosse Ile. Smoke column persisted for days.

  2. Congratulations to John for his wonderful explanation of the excellent work being done on Sugar Island, another outstanding project made possible through the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. All Americans should be proud of your achievements including the marvellous Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge.

    • Author 2 months ago

      Thanks Tom. It is awesome working with you and our many Canadian partners.

  3. Author 2 months ago

    Wow. Too bad there was no photo of that.

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