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Great Lakes Moment: New trail connects people with secluded Detroit River wetlands

Great Lakes Moment: New trail connects people with secluded Detroit River wetlands
June 5, 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.


What do a former naval air station, a Nike missile site, and a wildlife refuge have in common? You can soon find out thanks to a new Grosse Ile Township greenway trail designed to improve public access to the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge’s Gibraltar Bay Unit.

Naval Air Station Grosse Ile was established at the Grosse Ile Airport in 1927 and operated until 1969. During World War II, it was one of the largest primary flight training stations for naval aviators and Royal Air Force pilots. In 1956, the U.S. Army established a Nike missile site at Station Grosse Ile, armed with three Nike Ajax missiles housed in underground silos, which were operational till 1963.

In the 1960s, some of the land and buildings became laboratories of the Public Health Service until they were turned over in 1972 to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to become the Large Lakes Research Station, which conducted Great Lakes research until it closed in 2019.

The EPA property on the southern end of Grosse Ile includes a 41-acre parcel containing some marshland that is part of Gibraltar Bay and upland habitats. During the 1990s and early 2000s, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers performed an environmental cleanup. Naval debris was also removed from the bay through a partnership among the Navy Seabees, the Grosse Ile Nature and Land Conservancy, and the Great Detroit American Heritage River Initiative, and shoreline habitat was rehabilitated. By 2008, Army Corps risk assessment studies finally showed the property was safe for transfer to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and it became part of the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge.

Ecological significance

Today, this 41-acre parcel is called the Gibraltar Bay Unit and is part of the “conservation crescent” – a bow-shaped chain of islands, shoreline areas, and wetlands along the southern end of the Detroit River. Gibraltar Bay Unit is located on the eastern side of Grosse Ile Airport and stands as an ecological gem that provides an “up north” nature experience right in our backyard. This unit is part of the 158-acre Gibraltar Bay – one of Detroit River’s most significant coastal wetlands. In total, 97% of Detroit River’s coastal wetlands have been lost to development, making Gibraltar Bay a vitally important nursery of life that supports thousands of terrestrial and aquatic species.

These unique coastal wetlands are important spawning and nursery grounds for fishes and a staging area for waterfowl. They are part of an Important Bird Area designated by the National Audubon Society and, as a result, are an outstanding site for birding, including an internationally recognized raptor migration. This coastal embayment is also the top location for ice fishing on the Detroit River and an excellent place to view Michigan’s symbol of clean water – the American Lotus. Not to be overlooked at the Gibraltar Bay Unit is unique prairie habitat.

Stewardship and improved public access

The unit is stewarded by the refuge, the Grosse Ile Nature and Land Conservancy, and the International Wildlife Refuge Alliance, the refuge’s friends’ organization. Amenities include 1.5 miles of hiking trails, a photo blind to conceal wildlife photographers, two wildlife observation overlooks, a council ring used to teach about First Nations, environmental education, and conservation, and a spotting scope to view wildlife on the bay.

Currently, visitors have no way to walk or cycle to the Gibraltar Bay Unit other than on the shoulder of East River Road which is dangerous and in disrepair. This means an automobile is the only way to safely access it. However, that will soon change.

Grosse Ile Township has received funding to improve regional access to the Gibraltar Bay Unit from the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan’s Design and Access Fund (made possible by the Ralph C. Wilson Foundation), the Byars Family in memory of their daughter Adrienne Byars, and Grosse Ile Township. These funds will be used to install a new fence along the eastern edge of Grosse Ile Airport, allowing a 0.6-mile gravel perimeter airport road to be repurposed as a pedestrian and cyclist trail for safe access to the wonder and beauty of the unit’s unique coastal wetlands. Cost of the project is approximately $90,000 and Grosse Ile Township manager Derek Thiel says trail improvements should be completed by the end of June.

“The Grosse Ile Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Commission is so excited to see the fruits of our labor after nearly a decade of advocacy and coordination,” says chairperson Brian Pawlik. “We are very grateful to the Byars Family, the Community Foundation, and our other partners for helping uncover one of Grosse Ile’s hidden gems for residents and visitors alike.”

Connecting to existing greenway trails

Grosse Ile residents will be able to access the Gibraltar Bay Unit as part of the township’s eight miles of greenway trails through either the Grosse Ile free or toll bridge (no toll for bicycles). This new Grosse Ile trail will be part of Downriver Linked Greenways, Michigan’s Iron Belle Trail, and The Great Lakes Way, which is an interconnected set of greenways and water trails stretching from Port Huron to Toledo. Grosse Ile already has several multi-community group rides from surrounding communities as far away as Dearborn and Northville.

“Grosse Ile Township is proud of its natural areas and trails, and this new trail will connect people with Detroit River’s Gibraltar Bay and all species that call it home,” says Grosse Ile Township trustee Kyle de Beausset. “Not only do I hope it inspires a sense of wonder for the outdoors, but I also believe it to be the sort of trail that’s essential for our health and future prosperity.”

We learned during the COVID-19 pandemic about the importance of outdoor spaces and nature experiences. Research has shown that nearly half of adults from across the United States now participate in outdoor recreation at least once a month, resulting in health benefits. In addition, people who recreate in nature have a more favorable view of environmental protection and conservation.

That is why it is so exciting to see how this new trail will help create a regional natural resource destination of choice in southeast Michigan. If you are looking for an adventure in outdoor recreation or to be inspired by a sense of wonder for continentally significant natural resources, then this experience is for you.

The Gibraltar Bay Unit is open from dawn to dusk year-round at no cost. For more information, visit: https://www.fws.gov/refuge/detroit-river/visit-us.


Catch more news at Great Lakes Now: 

Great Lakes Moment: Solving the contaminated sediment remediation funding puzzle

Great Lakes Moment: Decreasing Great Lakes ice cover has consequences


Featured image: Detroit River’s Gibraltar Bay, located off the southern end of Grosse Ile, Michigan. (Photo Credit: John Hartig)

1 Comment

  1. Lucy Lussenden 3 months ago

    Thank you for your good work. Can Mallards tolerate cold michigan weather? A pair has been visiting my yard but the temps will drop to the mid-30s on Monday.

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