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Wisconsin shipwreck

Maritime archaeologists and volunteers from the Wisconsin Historical Society measure the keelson during a survey in Lake Michigan near Port Washington in August 2017 at the underwater site of the J.M. Allmendinger, sunk in 1895 while carrying a load of lumber. 

CHRIS WALKER/CHICAGO TRIBUNE

When Gov. Scott Walker rescinded his nomination for a federal designation of a marine sanctuary north of Milwaukee on March 6, he caught a lot of people by surprise.

“It did blindside many of us,” says Rolf Johnson, the CEO of the Wisconsin Maritime Museum in Manitowoc. “I was really excited about this.”

“It would have been real positive,” says Sheboygan Mayor Mike Vandersteen.

Walker had made the nomination back in 2014 with the support of municipalities in the area, including Manitowoc, Port Washington, Sheboygan, and Two Rivers. The designation was supposed to preserve the area for scuba divers and others interested in shipwrecks. And it was expected to boost tourism in the area.

The Wisconsin-Lake Michigan National Marine Sanctuary was slated to cover “about 1,075 square miles of Lake Michigan and protect 37 shipwrecks and 80 unexplored potential shipwrecks and other cultural resources off the coasts of Manitowoc, Sheboygan and Ozaukee counties,” according to the Herald Times Reporter of Manitowoc.

“The governor’s decision represents a missed opportunity for all of us,” says Kathy Tank, executive director of the City of Port Washington Tourism Council.

So why did Walker, who brags about boosting tourism, all of a sudden change his mind on the marine sanctuary?

Well, it turns out that some right-wing ideologues, along with Lake Michigan property owners, made a stink.

Jim Zeiler is president of a group called Citizens for Responsible Zoning and Landowner Rights, based in Hudson, on the Mississippi River, in the northwest corner of Wisconsin. But he went clear across the state to make the marine sanctuary his own white whale. Zeiler, by the way, was named “Volunteer of the Year” in 2009 by Americans for Prosperity Wisconsin, which is funded by the Koch brothers.

Zeiler was apoplectic that the federal government, under the auspices of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, was somehow going to take over Lake Michigan. He said the agency was “concealing a quest for added jurisdiction and power.”

Zeiler held listening sessions in the communities along Lake Michigan and spoke out at municipal meetings.

He also helped convince some lakefront property owners to join him in trying to deep-six the sanctuary. Ironically, the landowners called their group “Lake Michigan Is Not for Sale,” though, of course, they don’t own the lake themselves and if the federal government designated it as a marine sanctuary, we all would own it, as citizens of the United States.

“We do not believe that Wisconsin should give up over a thousand square miles of territorial sovereignty,” the group says on its website. Members of the group went door to door along the pricey lakefront to gather support for their position from property owners.

The Wisconsin Conservative Coalition, consisting of four tea party groups, also opposed the designation.

“The Constitution of the United States gives no authority to the federal government to have this kind of initiative,” Ron Zahn, chairman of the Wisconsin Conservative Coalition, told M.D. Kittle of the right-wing MacIver News Service.

Walker’s decision was “political,” says Manitowoc Mayor Justin Nickels. “He was appealing to a tiny fringe of his base.”

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After Walker announced his decision, he received praise from the Wisconsin Water Alliance, whose officers include the general counsel of MilkSource LLC, one of the biggest factory farms in Wisconsin, as well as the general counsel of Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, the most powerful lobbying group in Wisconsin.

But proponents of the marine sanctuary haven’t given up.

“We respectfully ask that Gov. Walker reconsider this decision,” wrote Mayor Nickels of Manitowoc, Mayor Vandersteen of Sheboygan, and Mayor Tom Mlada of Port Washington, in a March 13 letter in the Herald Times Reporter. There was “no reason to pull the plug on years of work, on literally tens of thousands of hours of work invested in establishment of our sanctuary,” they wrote. “We have come too far to turn back, worked too hard to just accept a surprise announcement that ‘it’s over.’ ”

The mayors also urged “residents, business and community organizations who support and believe in the effort to contact the governor’s office. Please join us in affirming the support for the sanctuary that is both broad and deep in our Lake Michigan communities.”

On March 18, residents in Two Rivers responded by holding a protest to try to get Walker to change his mind.

Matthew Rothschild is executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign. This piece ran first on their website. 

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