Walker on Lake Michigan Sanctuary, Then and Now

Supporters of a proposed national marine sanctuary zone along Lake Michigan’s west coast were caught off guard this week when Governor Scott Walker rescinded his support for the proposal. Walker’s new stance is in sharp contrast to a defensive response Media Trackers got last year when asking Walker’s office about his support for the zone.

The stated purpose of the sanctuary is to protect historic shipwrecks. Leaders in communities adjacent to the zone, Manitowoc, Sheboygan and Port Washington have expressed strong support for the sanctuary. But as Media Trackers reported last year, the group Citizens for Responsible Zoning and Landowner Rights(CRZLR) raised concerns about the proposed sanctuary, which would be managed by the The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

CRZLR spokesman James Zeiler told us back then that the sanctuaries give NOAA far more authority than is widely known. Zeiler says other sanctuaries have been used to stifle fossil fuel exploration and can be used to stymie development. Zeiler argues the Governor Scott Walker administration embraced the proposed Lake Michigan sanctuary without knowing all the facts. Walker spokesman Tom Evenson told Media Trackers last year that’s not true and that Zeiler’s fears were unfounded:

This project has been a collaboration between local communities, state, and federal representatives for years. This designation will not affect fishing or property rights. It simply does not allow anchors to be dropped nor dredging on historically designated shipwrecks marked by buoys. This designation will expand recreational and tourism opportunities for communities along the Lake Michigan coast and increase the significance of the Great Lakes in Wisconsin’s history.

Zeiler told us back then that Evenson was simply wrong:

Governor Walker has failed to note the comments of President Jimmy Carter’s May, 1977, Environment Message to Congress. President Carter clearly and unequivocally stated Sanctuaries are intended to stop development in oceans and the Great Lakes. Carter’s words coupled with the NOAA regulations outlawing all exploration and development of oil and minerals will affect future generations of Wisconsinites. Surprisingly Governor Walker claims to be the Jobs Governor.


Sanctuary regulations prohibit dredging, altering or any construction on the bottomlands. A wind turbine, pipeline or water intake pipe would not be allowed. Damaging known and unknown shipwrecks, marked or unmarked, are serious violations and are treated harshly.


NOAA’s plan extends the sanctuary boundary to the “Ordinary High Water Mark” along the shoreline. This conflicts with the landowner’s property rights concerning riparian rights as it moves the boundary onshore.


Once NOAA gains jurisdiction the issue of sales of water presents another issue. Currently Waukesha is seeking access to Lake Michigan. A sanctuary gives the Federal government another layer of control over state issues.


Governor Walker admits the proposal to surrender state jurisdiction and sovereignty has been under consideration for years.  Another year or two added to the timeline will allow for open, transparent public debate and allow the Legislature to review the issue.

According to the Journal-Sentinel, Walker now agrees with Zeiler:

“The addition of a new level of government for citizens to petition for permits and certifications for normal use of Lake Michigan is too much of a tradeoff for the negligible benefit to protecting shipwrecks,” Walker had said in his letter to NOAA. “Wisconsin has and will continue to protect our submerged cultural resources.”

The Journal-Sentinel also reported that it wasn’t immediately clear what the decision means for the proposal’s future, though several local officials have said the governor’s approval would be key to someday implementing a sanctuary.