The 40-year history of the National Marine Sanctuary System hasn’t been without tension between sanctuaries and their local communities. But in northern Michigan and the Florida Keys — two places where the sanctuaries once faced outright hostility — public opinion has undergone a dramatic about-face. Here’s how that remarkable change of heart came to pass.

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Home to some of the best preserved and historically significant shipwrecks in the United States, Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary is a world-class wreck diving destination, on par with places such as Scapa Flow in Scotland and Truk Lagoon in Micronesia.

Click here to check out Thunder Bay's wrecks.

        how two communities embraced their sanctuaries title

By Matt Dozier

A banner in the tiny Alpena Regional Airport terminal trumpets the “home of Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary.” Locals speak glowingly about the sanctuary’s effect on the community. Yet just 15 years ago, this small Michigan town was the battleground for one of the fiercest disputes in the 40-year history of the national marine sanctuaries.

A Rocky Beginning
Deb Pardike, executive director of the Alpena Convention and Visitors Bureau, has lived in Alpena since she was 11 years old. She has made it her life’s work to promote the city and help preserve its heritage, but when she stood up for the designation of Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary in 1997, her fellow citizens turned against her.

“I got calls at my home, threatening calls at work — people called me the devil! So many of them just hated me for what I was doing,” she recalls. Pardike found herself the lone advocate for a marine sanctuary in a community that resented the idea of federal government interference in the waters of Lake Huron. “There was really no one else out there who was supporting the sanctuary,” says Ellen Brody, who led the sanctuary designation effort for NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries.

Brody says the best measure of the community’s displeasure came in 1997, when Alpena residents voted on a non-binding ballot question asking whether they were for or against creating a national marine sanctuary in Thunder Bay. The response was overwhelmingly negative. Out of more than 2,500 people who cast their votes, a whopping 70 percent said they opposed the sanctuary.

It was a harsh rebuke to those who had been working for years to protect Thunder Bay’s unique collection of remarkably well-preserved historical shipwrecks through sanctuary designation. “Certainly, I was frustrated,” says Brody. “The opposition was intense, but I guess the magnitude of it was sort of surprising.”

Meanwhile, angry divers, fishermen and salvage operators wore Tshirts and buttons bearing the slogan “Say No to NOAA” and packed public meetings to voice their objections. Long-time dive charter operator Steve Kroll was one of the many who spoke out against the sanctuary. He says he and others were concerned that increased government control would lead to restricted access to Thunder Bay’s shipwrecks.

“We’d been diving these wrecks for years,” Kroll says. “We didn’t want [NOAA] telling us we couldn’t dive the wrecks, and we didn’t want to be charged fees to dive them.”

Conflict in the Keys
Alpena’s “Say No to NOAA” attitude was far from a new response to sanctuary designation. In fact, the slogan had first cropped up nearly a decade earlier, some 1,400 miles south of Alpena on the sunny shores of the Florida Keys.

Bad blood swirled around the creation of Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary in 1990, which combined two existing sanctuaries — Looe Key and Key Largo — into a much larger protected area that encompassed the entirety of Florida Keys waters. From the beginning, the designation process was plagued by bitter disputes and accusations of deception from both sides.

Opponents of the sanctuary called it a federal “power grab” and said NOAA had no intention of keeping its promises. Sanctuary advocates shot back, alleging that the anti-NOAA activists in the Keys were funded and staffed by outside interests. Billy Causey, the first superintendent of the sanctuary, was even hung in effigy by a group of irate protestors who called themselves the “Conch Coalition.”

“That was a tough time,” Causey says. “It got to be pretty ugly.” Bill Kelly, now the executive director of the Florida Keys Commercial Fishing Association, saw the battle unfolding around Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary’s designation in 1990. “The Keys were livid,” Kelly recalls. “Things like government control and law enforcement intervention were deeply resented at the time.”

It’s no coincidence that the same sentiments were echoed in Alpena later in the decade, Brody says. Many Michigan residents knew about the Keys struggle from spending winters in Florida, and the Conch Coalition even took out an anti-sanctuary ad in the Alpena newspaper. Despite the vocal opposition, however, the efforts of Deb Pardike and others to rally community support eventually paid off, and Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary was designated in October 2000.

From Cynic to Supporter
Twelve years later, Steve Kroll stood before the House Subcommittee on Fisheries, Wildlife and Oceans, and prepared to testify on a proposal to expand the Thunder Bay sanctuary boundaries from 448 square miles to more than 4,000 square miles.

“It’s very important that you understand that originally I was against establishment of the sanctuary,” Kroll’s testimony began. “I believed having the federal government determine what we should do with our resources would lead to too many restrictions. This attitude was shared by many citizens and expressed at public hearings prior to designation.”

But instead of criticizing the assembled members of Congress and NOAA leaders for imposing unwanted bureaucracy on the people of Michigan, Kroll went on to paint a radically different picture of the sanctuary: “The sanctuary has proven itself as a trusted partner, not just with the state of Michigan, but also with the local community. I’ve been involved in the process and can assure you it’s real and working.”

The sanctuary is helping bring maritime heritage back into schools, taking kids out on the water.

So, what changed? It began with the sanctuary advisory council, which was created to give divers, fishermen, boaters and other user groups a voice in the sanctuary’s management. Kroll, who has served on the council as a diving representative and council chair, describes a process of open communication and compromise that helped the sanctuary earn the trust of the local community. “It allowed people to have their voice and see over the course of time that their input matters,” he says. “That’s the way you get ownership.”

The other element, Kroll says, was education. “The sanctuary is helping bring maritime heritage back into schools, taking kids out on the water,” he says. “Along this whole northeastern shore of Michigan, people who live here are reconnecting to their past.”

Changing Minds, Producing Results
Visit either of these communities today and you will see a very different relationship between the two sanctuaries and local residents than in the early days of their designation. Gone are the “Say No to NOAA” signs. The dialogue at public meetings is civil rather than confrontational. Sanctuary staff are treated as peers instead of pariahs.

“I can wear a sanctuary shirt to the grocery store now,” jokes Deputy Superintendent Mary Tagliareni. At one time, Tagliareni says, she hesitated to advertise her NOAA affiliation for fear of being stopped by a disgruntled resident looking for an argument.

Bill Kelly, who as a lifelong fisherman had initial doubts about the motives behind the Florida Keys sanctuary, says those doubts were quickly erased by his interactions with sanctuary staff. In people like Causey and Tagliareni, Kelly says he saw like-minded individuals working toward a goal they shared in common: ensuring the future health of Florida’s ocean ecosystems. And indeed, over the past two decades the Florida Keys have seen major strides in ocean management and conservation that benefit both local communities and the marine environment.

“It’s so much to our benefit to preserve these places,” Kelly says. “It’s far better to have cooperative management than to always be at each other’s throats.”

In Alpena, the Thunder Bay sanctuary is now a hub of education, science and tourism for an area that has suffered decades of economic downturn. The sanctuary is a valued partner in the community, one that works to protect Thunder Bay’s marine resources but also to link local residents with their heritage and restore a sense of pride in the community.

“The community as a whole has embraced the sanctuary,” Pardike says. “Local people aren’t just supporters of the sanctuary; they’ve become stewards.”

Building a Better Future
Gaining the support of the public is a positive step for these sanctuaries and others that have experienced similar turnarounds, but it is only one step. Going forward, Causey says, the sanctuaries have a responsibility to work with their stakeholders to achieve their mutual goals. “One of the most important things is to not lose the connection with the community,” he says. “You can never take that for granted.”

With former opponents of the sanctuaries now some of their most fervent supporters, places like Alpena and the Florida Keys are now among our nation’s best hopes in turning the tide of ocean conservation for the better.

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