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
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 that “the 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.