Howard A. Learner

Protecting Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary in the Great Lakes

The Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary in Lake Huron is protected. Our Great Lakes victory is a national precedent leveraging protection for 10 other National Marine Sanctuaries and National Marine Monuments threatened with cuts and drilling. 

In 2017, the Trump administration’s Department of Commerce officially announced its “review,” proposing to cut the size of the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary by 90%, and open it up to oil and gas drilling. ELPC and our colleagues immediately started building public and media attention, filed legal comments, engaged bipartisan federal and state policymakers, and built a strong coalition and campaign to oppose this misguided proposal. Now, we’ve won. 

Two weeks agoJohn Minor, the NOAA Director of National Marine Sanctuaries, responded positively to the ELPC-coordinated letter from 16 Great Lakes colleague environmental and conservation organizations. We requested that the Commerce Department officially withdraw and close the Trump administration’s review. They’ve now done exactly that. The Biden administration rescinded the Trump Executive Order, which provided the legal basis for the review, and the misguided proposal is now withdrawn and ended. The Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary is protected. 

Case closed. And not only for the Thunder Bay NMS – by rescinding the previous legal authority, NOAA effectively ended the Trump administration’s other similar proposals. Our Great Lakes victory is a national precedent leveraging protection for 10 other National Marine Sanctuaries and National Marine Monuments threatened with cuts and drilling. 

How did this all happen and why?

President Biden credits his 2020 election victory to holding the “Blue Wall” of Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. By contrast, former President Trump won his 2016 election by a total of about 80,000 votes in those same three states, but then commenced what amounted to a “War on the Great Lakes”. First, he zeroed out federal funding for the successful Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI). 

ELPC and colleagues Healing Our Waters, Alliance for the Great Lakes and others gained strong Congressional bipartisan support to win the battle – three times – to restore full funding of $300 million annually for the GLRI. Last year, we succeeded in passing an increase to $330 million, and authorization to ramp up funding to $375 million this year, and then to $475 million by FY 2024. That’s a big win for the Great Lakes. 

Second, in 2017, the Trump administration proposed to cut 90% of the size of the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary on Lake Huron, and open it up to oil and gas drilling 

The Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary is the nation’s only freshwater national marine sanctuary. This special place is enjoyed by tourists, school children and scuba divers. Thunder Bay is famous for “Shipwreck Alley,” an area with a large number and variety of ships dating back to the nineteenth century that are now lying at the bottom of Lake Huron. The visitor center in Alpena, Michigan, and glass-bottom boat tours offer a unique and important maritime and trade history of the Great Lakes. We knew it was worth fighting to keep Thunder Bay NMS intact.  

Why did the review of the Thunder Bay NMS even start in 2017? Good question. First, because President Trump issued Executive Order 13795 – Implementing an America-First Offshore Energy Strategy to open up more coastal areas to oil and gas drilling. Second, because President Trump seemed to adopt a “whatever it is, I’m against it” approach – reminiscent of Groucho Marx as President of Freedonia in the movie Duck Soup – to any and all of President Obama’s actions, which included expansions and designations of 11 national marine sanctuaries and national marine monuments.  

President Trump’s Executive Order 13795 was published on June 26, 2017, at 82 FR 22887. By August, ELPC coordinated comments with 13 Great Lakes group colleagues to the U.S. Department of Commerce opposing any reduction in the size of Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary and explaining that oil and gas drilling in the Great Lakes is prohibited by both federal and state law. We worked with bipartisan members of the Michigan Congressional Delegation to send a letter to then-Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross explaining the local pride and support for the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary and the related tourism benefits to the local economy. Radio silence from the Commerce Department.  

In January 2018, I sent a letter to then-Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, urging him to inform Commerce Secretary Ross and the Trump administration that he would use his authority under the National Marine Sanctuaries Act to object to any reduction in the size and current boundaries of the Thunder Bay NMS. Governors essentially have a veto under this law – a national marine sanctuary can’t be created, expanded or cut down without the approval of the Governor of the adjoining state.   

Gov. Snyder stepped up and sent a letter to the Commerce Department stating his opposition to the misguided proposal to cut the size of the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary, pointing to its world-class collection of shipwrecks and the benefits to the local economy. He supported keeping the expanded boundaries and opposed oil and gas drilling. While Gov. Snyder didn’t specifically use the word “veto,” the message was clear. Still, radio silence from the Commerce Department. 

Fast forward to January 2021. President Biden issued Executive Order 13990, which, among other things, revoked President Trump’s Executive Orders that provided the basis for the reviews of the 11 national marine sanctuaries and national marine monuments.   

ELPC moved quickly to coordinate a letter from 16 Great Lakes environmental and conservation organization colleagues to new Commerce Department Secretary Gina Raimondo asking her to officially withdraw and close the Trump administration’s misguided proposal on the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Within the Commerce Department, the national marine sanctuaries program is administered by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).  

We welcomed the great news from NOAA Director of National Marine Sanctuaries John Minor’s formal letter to ELPC explaining that President Biden’s new Executive Order revokes Trump’s Executive Order 17395. That officially withdraws the legal authority for the prior administration’s review of the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary. The Commerce Department and NOAA now “consider the matter closed.”

National Precedent

This is the first time that the Commerce Department – NOAA declared that the agency has rescinded the Trump Executive Order 17395, which, through 82 FR 22887, opened up many national marine sanctuaries and national marine monuments to oil and gas drilling, and cut the size of many others. Mr. Armor’s reasoning, in his letter to me, applies with like force to the ten other National Marine Sanctuaries and National Marine Monuments put at risk by the Trump administration “review.  It also impacts some of the other off-shore areas that the Trump administration was seeking to open up to oil and gas drilling. This NOAA decision to close the “review” of Thunder Bay NMS is the national precedent now governing many others as explained in this Greenwire article. 

The national precedent and impacts are important and reflect the strategic leverage we were able to assert by focusing on the Thunder Bay NMS and, by extension, including the other national marine sanctuaries and monuments. We kept up the pressure and we won. ELPC and our Great Lakes colleagues will continue to work to protect the integrity and value of the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Perseverance pays off, and it’s especially sweet when it results in a victory for our treasured Great Lakes.   

We’re proud of this Great Lakes protection victory. Please see ELPC’s press statement. Case closed, though there is much more Great Lakes protection and restoration work to be done. 

Howard A. Learner,

Chief Executive Officer & Executive Director

Howard Learner is an experienced attorney serving as the President and Executive Director of the Environmental Law & Policy Center. He is responsible for ELPC’s overall strategic leadership, policy direction, and financial platform.

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