Great Lakes Moment: The event that saved Humbug Marsh

Great Lakes Moment: The event that saved Humbug Marsh
March 6, 2023 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.

On that September day in 1998, more than 1,000 rain-soaked and determined people stood up for what they felt was right.

People from all over Michigan and beyond attended the public hearing at Gibraltar Carlson High School, so many that there were traffic jams and the fire marshal had to lock the doors to prevent a larger crowd. The issue at hand was residential development of the last mile of natural shoreline on the U.S. mainland of the Detroit River – Humbug Marsh.

The vast majority of these citizens strongly opposed the development and was in favor of preserving the rich and diverse coastline that was part of their home and heritage. By allowing the development to proceed, they knew the precious life and rich history would forever be lost. This tremendous support was the key catalyst in saving Humbug Marsh and establishing the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge.

The people spoke and those in charge listened. By doing so, this area now belongs to wildlife and people for their stewardship, study and enjoyment. Humbug Marsh will forever stand as a site of great determination and love by those in the Downriver community.

For centuries, the Wyandot of Anderdon Nation was attracted to Humbug Marsh for its natural resources and strategic location, and revered it as sacred. This 410-acre tract of undeveloped land is located along the lower end of the Trenton Channel of the Detroit River in the cities of Trenton and Gibraltar, Michigan. It consists of a coastal marsh, a barrier island and uplands.

In 1899, a fisherman lived on Humbug Island. During the 1930s and 1940s, a hunting club operated out of a cabin on the island and enjoyed waterfowl hunting in Humbug Marsh. During the 1940s and 1950s, the uplands of Humbug Marsh were farmed for alfalfa and corn, and sheep were periodically grazed on a portion of the land. During World War II, military vehicles were brought in by rail line at the adjacent Monsanto Chemical Plant and temporarily stored on a portion of Humbug Marsh land.

During the 1950s, Humbug Marsh and Island were purchased by the former McLouth Steel Company for possible future expansion of operations that never materialized. Steel company executives used the marsh as their private waterfowl hunting grounds. Then in the late 1980s, a company called Marina Ventures purchased Humbug Marsh for development into homes, a golf course and a marina. This first attempt to develop Humbug Marsh failed because it was not financially viable.

Then, Waste Management purchased Humbug Marsh around 1992 and a conservation easement was placed on its wetlands, Humbug Island and a small portion of uplands in 1993 to protect them from future development. This all changed in 1997 when a company called Made In Detroit bought Humbug Marsh with grand plans of luxury homes, a bridge to the island, a golf course, marina and more. This developer bought the property knowing that the conservation easement was in place.

For the proposed development to proceed, the developer would need several permits that would require public hearings. That first public hearing was held at Gibraltar Carlson High School in 1998 and people from all over Michigan attended. People spoke out in opposition, the permits were not issued and eventually Humbug Marsh was purchased out of bankruptcy court in 2004 for $4.1 million by the Trust for Public Land to become the cornerstone of the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge.

Humbug Marsh is now protected in perpetuity for wildlife as part of the National Wildlife Refuge System and plays a unique role in bringing conservation to cities as part of one of a few urban refuges in the nation.

It should be noted that in 2006, Made In Detroit filed a complaint in federal court claiming there was collusion between environmental activists and regulators to slow down or complicate matters for the project. Eventually, the case went to mediation and was settled for $5 million.

Locally, the saving of Humbug Marsh was viewed as a citizen victory. Indeed, citizens and grassroots organizations like Friends of the Detroit River, Sierra Club, Detroit Audubon and others banded together for nearly ten years in a campaign to preserve Humbug Marsh. But others like Congressman John Dingell, other local elected officials, scientists and natural resource managers also played critical roles. This tremendous public support was a key catalyst in establishing the international wildlife refuge and Humbug Marsh became its cornerstone.

There are over 2,400 Ramsar Wetland of International Importance designations worldwide, 41 in the United States, and only one in Michigan – Humbug Marsh. The Ramsar Convention on Wetlands is an international treaty that was signed in Ramsar, Iran in 1971 that provides a framework for voluntary international protection of wetlands.

Humbug Marsh is considered an internationally important wetland because of its ecological importance in the Detroit River corridor and the Great Lakes Basin Ecosystem. Oak trees on site have been aged at over 300 years old and were alive when Cadillac founded Detroit in 1701. 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”
  • 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 times
  • A rare sedge called the Hairy-Fruited Sedge that is listed as a “special concern” species in Michigan

Located adjacent to Humbug Marsh was a former automotive manufacturing plant that produced brakes, paints and solvents for 44 years. It was cleaned up to industrial standards and sat vacant as an industrial brownfield for over ten years.

In 2002, Wayne County Parks purchased this industrial brownfield in Trenton to become the future home of the refuge’s visitor center and to improve outdoor recreational opportunities like shore fishing, hiking, wildlife observation, kayaking and more. It then took 10 years to successfully clean up this former industrial brownfield and meet public use standards.

Today, it can proudly be said that 16 acres of wetlands were restored through this project on site along the Detroit River, which has lost 97% of its coastal wetlands to development. Also completed at the Refuge Gateway was the daylighting of a creek – taking it out from underground in a pipe, restoring 25 acres of upland buffer habitat, controlling invasive plant species on over 50 acres of upland habitats and controlling of invasive Phragmites along 2.5 miles of shoreline. This has resulted in merging the 44-acre Refuge Gateway with the 410-acre Humbug Marsh into one ecological unit and is helping create a truly exceptional outdoor recreational and conservation experience in the Detroit Metropolitan Area.

Today, it is the only project in the world to successfully clean up an industrial brownfield to serve as an ecological buffer for a “Wetland of International Importance.”

On the Refuge Gateway are:

  • A 12,000 square foot, Gold, LEED-certified, visitor center
  • A 740-foot dock for the 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
  • Over three miles of hiking trails connected to over 100 miles of regional greenway trails

The refuge already attracts over 100,000 people annually, and standing at the Refuge Gateway is like viewing three different centuries at once:

  • To the south is Humbug Marsh – the last mile of natural shoreline on the U.S. mainland of the Detroit River that has on its uplands an old growth forest with oak trees over 300 years old that were alive when Cadillac founded Detroit in 1701
  • To the north are a former chemical plant and fossil fuel power plant that represent the industrial revolution of the 20th Century;
  • On the site can be seen a 21st Century example of sustainable redevelopment of a 20th Century industrial brownfield into the Refuge Gateway that is home to the Refuge’s LEED-certified visitor center

Many people still view the Refuge Gateway as a paradox of heavy industry and internationally recognized wildlife refuge. But it’s not. It’s a strategically planned destination of choice consistent with the philosophy of Abraham Lincoln who said: “The best way to predict the future is to create it.”

This project is now 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.

In 2018, The Waterfront Center 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.

The Refuge is a unique urban place where the tapestry of life has been woven with elegance, where the music of life has been rehearsed to perfection for thousands of years, where nature’s colors are most vibrant and engaging, where time is measured in seasons and where the courtship dance of diving ducks takes center stage. It is a gift given to us for our appreciation, enjoyment and inspiration, but also with a responsibility for stewardship so that it can be passed on to future generations. It is a gift unwrapped each time a hunter sets the decoys, an angler lands a fish, an amateur photographer clicks the shutter, a birder lifts their binoculars, a paddler launches a kayak and a child catches a tadpole.

Today, 80% of all people in the U.S. and Canada live in urban areas. Most urban residents are still disconnected from the natural world. This cannot continue. The Refuge Gateway and Humbug Marsh have been strategically planned 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 live.

On this 25th anniversary of the event that catalyzed the saving of Humbug Marsh, it is important to reflect on this history and recognize our responsibility to pick up the baton and continue the relay race toward the goal of a healthy and sustainable ecosystem where all species, including humans, can thrive.

John Hartig is a board member at the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy. He serves as a Visiting Scholar at the University of Windsor’s Great Lakes Institute for Environmental 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 for 14 years as the refuge manager.

Catch more news at Great Lakes Now: 

Great Lakes Moment: A community science survey

Great Lakes Moment: The great blue herons of Stony Island

Featured image: Humbug Marsh on the lower Detroit River. (Photo courtesy of Mary Bohling, Michigan Sea Grant)


  1. Tom Henderson, Chair, Public Advisory Council, Dteroit River Canadian Cleanup, Windsor Ontario 1 year ago

    Another outstanding article by John Hartig reminding us that citizen activism works wonders, the natural features and shoreline of Humbug Marsh being saved for all time. Congratulations to the people of Michigan for their foresight and dedication in fighting to preserve this ecological gem.

  2. Fred Watson 1 year ago

    I remember when this happened. It was a classic case of unnecessary over development vs. irreplaceable lands. Made in Detroit was very rude in thumbing their noses at the Downriver community and were surprised at the backlash. They purposely chose a plot they knew would generate great anxiety and more or less laughed about people being upset over it.
    My father and his brothers lived on Toledo Road and hunted and fished in the Humbug area in the 1930’s and 40’s, as youngsters.

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