A quiet, 10-year effort to protect Clough Island in the St. Louis River estuary of Lake Superior paid off for baby sturgeon Wednesday when the Nature Conservancy announced it has bought the island from private developer for $1.5 million.
The 358-acre island is the largest land mass in the estuary and helps to make up a critically important nursery for all species of fish, including the giant sturgeon, which only now is making a comeback after disappearing from Lake Superior and the St. Louis River decades ago.
It is also home to hundreds of birds and a key stopping point in the migration of many more.
"It's probably the highest area of productivity in the St. Louis River estuary," said John Lindgren, a fisheries specialist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources who worked with the conservancy and the Wisconsin DNR to bring the deal together. "It's been a long time coming."
Also known as Whiteside Island and Big Island, the property is easily seen by motorists stopping each year at the Thompson Hill Information Center on Duluth's Skyline Drive.
At one time, the island was destined to become a $330 million golf resort and community, which would have caused significant environmental damage to the entire estuary area, officials say. But the complex project proposed in 2004 by the Progress Land Co. of Savage never came about. It would have required a road through state forest and a bridge from Wisconsin. The downturn in the economy was the final blow, Lindgren said.
"They were talking about making another whole town right in the middle of the estuary," he said. "This could be one positive thing out of the economic downturn."
The conservancy has had its eye on the 358-acre island for a decade, and seven years ago the partnership working on the deal won a million-dollar grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to help buy the property. That, plus other grants and private donations, will help with conservation work, officials said.
Preserving the island also is key to preserving the environmental quality of the St. Louis estuary, the largest estuary in Lake Superior. Peggy Ladner, Minnesota state director of the Nature Conservancy, pointed out that Duluth and many other cities along the North Shore get their drinking water from the lake.
Clough Island will remain open to the public for hiking, fishing and hunting, though it has no trails or services. Eventually, it will be turned over to public hands, said conservancy officials.
"We are thankful that this beautifully wild place will be there in perpetuity for nature and people," Ladner said.
At one time the island was a farm owned by a family named Whiteside. It was abandoned in the 1950s, but the ruins of a grand old house and a barn are still there.
Today, it has woods, wetlands, bays and undeveloped shoreline, all important for a wide variety of natural life, from terns to deer to wolves. The shallow waters and wetlands around the island are habitats for fish of all kinds, particularly fingerling sturgeon, which spawn near the head of the estuary beneath the Fond Du Lac dam.
Josephine Marcotty • 612-673-7394