Tag: submerged lands

A New Look at Protecting Michigan’s Submerged Great Lakes Lands

This underwater map of Lake Huron shows a ridge that was once above water where scientists have found evidence of caribou hunting blinds used by indigenous peoples thousands of years ago when lake levels were much lower.


Dave Dempsey, Senior Advisor

By Dave Dempsey and Alex Theophilus

Protection of the submerged lands of the Great Lakes that lie within Michigan’s jurisdiction is part of the state’s public trust duties. This represents a vast area, approximately 38,500 square miles of bottomland beneath four of the Great Lakes. By contrast, the size of the entire state of Indiana is 36,400 square miles.

While the common law public trust doctrine governs the general duties of the state with respect to its ownership and control responsibilities over Great Lakes submerged lands, the Michigan Legislature in 1982 enacted a statute authorizing the Department of Natural Resources to establish by rule bottomland preserves “whenever a submerged lands area

Alex Theophilus is FLOW’s former policy intern

includes a single watercraft of significant historical value, includes 2 or more abandoned watercraft, or contains other features of archaeological, historical, recreational, geological, or environmental significance.” In practice, the state has created bottomland preserves only for shipwreck conservation. Michigan currently has 13 such preserves spanning 7,200 square miles of Great Lakes bottomland.

Although protection of this portion of the public domain has been reserved almost exclusively for shipwreck sites, the Department of Natural Resources notes thatthe State, as the owner and trustee, has a perpetual responsibility to the public to manage these submerged lands and waters for the prevention of pollution, for the protection of the natural resources and to maintain the public’s rights of hunting, fishing, navigation, commerce, etc.” Invoking statutory protections to protect significant cultural, environmental, and scientific submerged land locations would provide conservation insurance for future access by the state to what amounts to the region’s most expansive public trust parkland. 

The opportunity for the State of Michigan to take the first step towards appropriate bottomland preservation and provisions may be following through on the requests of the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians for the Straits of Mackinac to be declared Traditional Cultural Property in light of the discovery of items of potential archaeological significance. The recognition of the cultural heritage and scientific needs for environmental protection incorporated in the Straits should be made before any further development or exploitation of publicly owned property at the Straits occurs.

Additional protection considerations may be made for cultural resources of potential scientific significance, such as archeological sites in Grand Traverse Bay and on the Alpena-Amberley Land Bridge. Exclusively recognizing shipwreck sites rather than other submerged lands that would benefit from protection, research, and exploration falls short of protecting other critically important historical or other resources of important cultural and natural resources values.

In addition to potential archaeological sites, Great Lakes submerged lands contain environmentally and geologically significant features including a drowned waterfall, remnants of ancient forests, sinkholes and, potentially, fish spawning habitat.

Additional national marine sanctuaries could also provide a framework within which protection of Michigan submerged lands could be expanded. A proposition was made in 2015 to establish a National Marine Sanctuary in Lake Michigan off of the Wisconsin coast, and other proposals in Great Lakes states may advance under the Biden Administration, but these are again based primarily on shipwreck sites. The Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary within Michigan’s Lake Huron waters enjoys broad public and bipartisan support, but its focus is on the approximately 100 shipwrecks within the Sanctuary. In recent years, the Sanctuary has stepped up its environmental education efforts.

Inventorying and conserving potentially significant resources on Michigan’s Great Lakes submerged lands, in addition to shipwrecks, would make the state a national example of wise stewardship.

Appreciating Our Submerged Lands: Michigan

Submerged Michigan
38,000 square miles.  That’s a lot of real estate.  In fact, it’s bigger than the square mileage of 12 states — including Indiana, West Virginia and Massachusetts.
It’s part of Michigan.  It’s a part you and all other citizens of Michigan own.
And it’s all underwater, under Lakes Superior, Michigan, Huron and Erie.
These Great Lakes submerged lands are protected by the public trust doctrine.  
Under the public trust, the waters of the Great Lakes Basin and the lands beneath them can never be controlled by or transferred to private interests for private purposes or gain. 
Our rights to use the water of the Great Lakes Basin cannot be alienated or subordinated by our governments to special private interests; this means that all reasonable private use and public uses may be accommodated so long as the public trust waters and ecosystem are not harmed and the paramount public right to public uses is not subordinated or impaired. Because many citizens are not aware that the public trust doctrine is part of their bundle of rights in our democracy, many of our leaders and big business are ignoring and violating these principles. 
Add these 38,000-plus square miles underwater to the 58,000 or so square miles of Michigan of land and water that makes up the Upper and Lower Peninsula, and you have a total state area of approximately 96,700 square miles of Michigan.  That makes Michigan the 11th largest state in area.


Trivia question:  how many states does Michigan border?  The answer is not 3 — Wisconsin, Indiana and Ohio.  Michigan does border these states, but there are two more, Minnesota and Illinois, making a total of 5.  Michigan’s waters and submerged lands meet Minnesota’s in Lake Superior and Illinois in Lake Michigan.

FLOW Submits a Nonpartisan Comment on Proposed Senate Bill 409

FLOW has contacted key Michigan lawmakers to ask them to defend the public's Great Lakes waters and submerged lands from intrusion.

Legislation before the House Committee on Natural Resources exceeds the Legislature's powers and puts publicly owned waters and submerged lands at risk. S.B. 409 allows private riparian landowners to occupy Great Lakes submerged lands (which belong to the public) and construct private noncommercial harbors adjacent to their upland riparian property.

FLOW said this sets a terrible precedent that could lead to other private interests seeking to make private ownership claims on the Great Lakes and their submerged lands. In an 1892 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that states cannot cede these submerged lands and waters to private parties because the title to them is "held in trust for the people of the state, that they may enjoy the navigation of waters, carry on commerce over them, and have liberty of fishing therein free from the obstruction or interference of private parties.”

S.B. 409 runs afoul of Supreme Court precedent and sound stewardship of our waters, and should be rejected.