Clough Island, conservedClough Island will get a boatload of visitors Tuesday as conservation leaders from Wisconsin and Minnesota join state and federal natural resource officials to celebrate protection of the largest island in the largest estuary of the largest freshwater lake in the world.
By: By John Myers, Superior Telegram
Clough Island will get a boatload of visitors Tuesday as conservation leaders from Wisconsin and Minnesota join state and federal natural resource officials to celebrate protection of the largest island in the largest estuary of the largest freshwater lake in the world.
The 350-acre island, which once was targeted for development as a golf resort and condominium complex, is now firmly in the hands of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and is considered critical habitat for fish and birds that use the St. Louis River estuary.
“It’s just a great spot to paddle or go fishing and to be able to see 50-inch musky and big sturgeon right in an urban area like this. It’s pretty special what we have here,” said Bob Cragin, a rural Superior resident who worked to protect the island. “Its one of the places where little walleye and sturgeon come down to after they spawn. … It’s really their nursery. The island is the heart of the whole estuary.”
Cragin, 64, who grew up fishing, hunting and playing on the river in nearby Oliver, said keeping the island undeveloped and shoreline protected “just makes sense” as part of the larger, ongoing restoration of the river.
“Just above a harbor area that’s been so thoroughly altered by people over the past 150 years, here we have an area of shallow water habitat and wetlands that is pretty much undisturbed,” said Fred Strand, DNR wildlife manager in Superior.
The DNR received the island earlier this year as a gift from the Nature Conservancy, which purchased the island form private developers last November using $1.75 million grants from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Wisconsin’s land stewardship fund.
Clough Island, also called Whiteside Island, recently was added into the DNR’s existing St. Louis/Red River Stream Bank Protection Area and is now forever off limits to development. It’s also part of the federal government’s National Estuarine Research Reserve System, as is all public land on the Wisconsin side of the St. Louis River.
From preservation to restoration
About $200,000 of the federal grant for the island is earmarked for restoration after the purchase, and plans for that work are under way. About 230 species of birds use the estuary for migration or nesting, along with 45 species of native fish and several mammals.
“To be honest, we were so busy over the past few years just trying to figure out how to buy the island that we didn’t really plan ahead on what to do next,” Strand said. “But we’ve got some ideas, especially relating to water quality around the island and erosion control on the island itself.”
Work is expected to begin next summer stabilizing the clay banks along the island that are sloughing into the river. There also will be some reforestation efforts, probably conifers, to help slow runoff from the island’s long-fallow farm fields.
Other work might involve restoring wetlands drained to create farm fields on the island. And there may be some work along the shoreline.
“We’ve been told pretty bluntly that this has to be real restoration work and not just cosmetic, feel-good work,” Strand said.
Simply keeping the island undeveloped, and nearby shallow-water areas of the river undisturbed, is the real key for fish and wildlife, Strand said. But that almost didn’t happen when, in 2002, a Twin Cities developer bought the island and a year later proposed a massive $330 million housing and golf complex.
That plan never materialized past the drawing board, and conservation groups worked with state and federal agencies to put the purchase deal together, finally convincing the developer to sell last year.
Most of the island was owned by Duluth’s Whiteside family from 1904 until 2002. The family had a home and farm there for many years, but the island has been vacant since the house burned in 1956.
The island will be open for people to land kayaks, canoes and boats to explore. There are no plans for major facilities, other than a small dock and possibly marked trails. It’s likely to be used mostly by picnickers and birdwatchers, said Bill Smith, DNR regional ands program leader.
“It’s not going to be a developed campground or anything like that. People will always be able to use it, but in a low-impact way,” Smith said.
“There’s a value to having that kind of wild, scenic island where people can feel like they’re 100 miles away from town instead of in the middle of 100,000 people in an urban area,” Strand said. “But the real value to this deal is that shallow water habitat. … The habitat on the island itself is not unique. But the shallow-water habitat around the island really is special.”