A Tern for the Better: The Detroit River Comeback

Few people would get excited about two common tern chicks who hatched on Belle Isle last summer. But Greg Norwood and other environmental scientists working with the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge quietly celebrated the return of the bird after 50 years. 
While monitoring a recreated nesting habitat for the sleek, gull-like white bird with black cap and orange beak, Norwood noted one of the terns pecking at him: "This feisty behavior was precisely what we were hoping to see because that means the common terns had established an affinity for the site and were fiercely defending it as their breeding habitat."
The return of common terns to the Detroit River -- a bird considered "threatened" in Michigan -- is symbolic of the ability of the refuge to create habitat that nurtures an animal species. On a more scientific level, it provides scientists a living monitor of environmental health. Like the canary used to measure air quality in a mine, the tern is used to identify concentrations of contaminants like PCBs in the water. The terns collect contaminants in their fat tissue from the fish they eat. Refuge staff measure the accumulation in tern eggs. 
"The longer common terns are in the Detroit River, in a particular breeding season, the more contaminants they put into their bodies," says Norwood. "Over decades we can monitor them. Otherwise, you'd have to go into the sediment."
An environmental comeback
The re-establishment of dozens of species of fish and fowl is the legacy of extensive environmental restoration in the refuge, the only international environmental collaboration in North America. Scientists, environmentalists, and corporate interests collaborate on projects that are slowly reversing the devastating impact of industrialization that eliminated 90 percent of the river wetlands and several animal species. The refuge conducts biennial "State of the Strait" conferences on macro issues, but regularly engages in cross-border projects. 
The "rust belt" identity of Southeast Michigan is no longer entirely accurate, says John Hartig, Refuge Manager. "The region is becoming a leader in restoring urban shoreline habitat, creating waterfront greenways... What was considered a 'hard' shoreline is now becoming 'soft.'" Nearly the entire 32 miles of Detroit River shoreline was hardened with concrete or steel to accommodate industry, contributing to 97 percent loss of coastal wetland habitats, according to Hartig.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been the most active partner on the U.S. side. In the past 12 years, 51 "soft" shoreline engineering projects have been undertaken, 13 of which are completed.  The work has reversed the notoriously polluted "Black Lagoon" into a clean fish spawning habitat and community waterfront recreational area, since renamed "Elias Cove." 
The 410-acre Humbug Marsh, the only mile of undeveloped land on the Detroit River and recent home to bald eagles, is the only wetland in Michigan to be certified by the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands as having "international importance." It contains over 50 species of fish. 
Fighting Island, one of several islets in the lower Detroit River and onetime dump site for the Michigan Alkali Corporation, has been re-naturalized by BASF Corporation, its current owner. On the riverbed near the Canadian island, 12 spawning reefs have been created for lake sturgeon, the first fish habitat restoration project in the Great Lakes funded by the U.S. and Canada, along with corporate partners. 
On land, the spread of a non-native variety of phragmites, a reed that grows up to 15 feet and chokes wetlands, has been addressed through an eradication project funded by the International Transmission Company. 
Partners in restoration
One of the distinguishing qualities of this refuge is not the diplomacy between the United States and Canada, but the relationship between the refuge and multiple corporate and non-profit partners needed to assemble a "patchwork" of properties and projects of the refuge. 
"The overarching task that this refuge has is to bring in all these environmental partners and work together to build a quality 3,000 acres," Norwood says. This represents "a shift in paradigm" in how environmental interests, government, and business leaders relate on the ecosystem level, according to Congressman John Dingall, a longtime advocate of the refuge.
Just as the Detroit River is a passage for freighters and pleasure boats, it's also a migratory thoroughfare for birds, and its islands are rest stops. 
"The reason this refuge is so critical and why I want to work in a place like this is that between point A and point B they have to stop," Norwood says. "The Great Lakes are an interruption... They don't want to cross the water. There is a lot of impact one can have on the migratory bird population by improving these lands... You're improving the biomass that's available for energy for these birds by creating plant communities, creating wetlands where there was once soybeans."
Fish that populate Lake Erie need shallower areas to spawn. "The interface between open water and upland is marsh, wetland," Norwood says. "We are the number one landowner of open, coastal wetlands that are open to Lake Erie that fish have access to. That interface is critical. Many fish in Lake Erie wouldn't exist without these wetlands. They're not very big, but they're critical and being used heavily."
The refuge has engaged young environmentalists through academic fellowships and volunteerism. Allison Krueger, who completed a master's program in landscape design at the University of Michigan, is plying her craft in the refuge. She underscores the significance of an "urban" refuge. The challenge of land acquisition and organizing a multitude of partners for doing relatively small projects is balanced by the uniqueness of building a wildlife refuge within a few miles of homes and workplaces. 
"Landscape architecture blends the urban environment with the natural world," she says."Very few urban metropolitan residents can experience this habitat. You don't have that opportunity unless you drive three or four hours outside an urban environment."
Krueger's work is focused on the developing of the Refuge Gateway on the former site of a chemical plant, now owned by Wayne County. The land is being developed into an educational/park project consisting of trails, a recreated wetland from daylighting a storm drain, boat docks and fishing peers, and a cycling trail connecting with Lake Erie Metropark.
The refuge has always integrated education with its grant submissions, Krueger says. World Wetlands Day, held in February at Humbug Marsh, involved school students from all over the metro area. The refuge has also been the subject of a master's thesis and regularly coordinates volunteer projects. The Metropolitan Affairs Coalition funds a fellowship to support the refuge, including development of a Detroit River-Western Lake Erie Basin Indicator Project, which monitors the health of the river and lake through 50 indicators.
Just the beginning
Progress in the refuge ebbs and flows with the economy. In better times, Chris Lehr's Nativescape company was busy on several softshore, wetland, and other environmental restoration projects. 
"All of these projects are focused on the fundamentals of using the native habitat that were found in the area and restoring them to a facsimile thereof," he says. "I believe that you can jump-start nature. By getting the basic fundamentals or building blocks of the habitat in an area then other things will come."
While the accomplishments in the refuge are notable, they're merely the beginning of restoring the river to its ecological vitality, says Lehr.  Despite pending federal budget cuts, Lehr and others remain optimistic about the possibilities of this relatively small, complicated "patchwork" of properties.
Krueger, raised in Michigan, wants to work here "because of all of the water that surrounds our state and the importance of water quality. ... My work at the refuge will help secure the water supply for future generations."
Norwood, who has worked in a vast Alaskan refuge, says there are much larger refuges elsewhere in the country, but the Detroit River offers something they don't: work. 
"Those places are pristine," says Norwood. "...but there's nothing to do."

Dennis Archambault lives in Detroit and writes for Metromode, Concentrate and Model D.

Our underwriters for this project are Lawrence Technological University and the Erb Family Foundation.

All Photos by David Lewinski Photography