Photos by Larry Caruso

Long-awaited Refuge opening becomes a reality


Wow!  Finally, a good news story for 2020!  And, it’s been a long time comin’. 

 Beginning Oct. 1, 2020 the Detroit River International Refuge Gateway and portions of the Humbug Marsh Unit, located at 5475 W. Jefferson Trenton, MI 48183 will be open to the public every Thursday through Sunday, for limited daytime use.  

The announcement came in conjunction with Urban National Wildlife Refuge Day, Sept. 29, the date designated by the Secretary of Interior recognizing the special importance of urban refuges enhancing the quality of life in their local communities.

 Of the 568 wildlife refuges in the United States, 101 of them are urban refuges, which includes the Detroit River International Refuge Gateway and Humbug Marsh Unit.

 The Refuge Gateway area was owned by Chrysler Corporation and operated as an automotive brake pad adhesive and paint facility from 1946 to 1990.  

The plant was closed in 1990 and remediated to the State of Michigan industrial/commercial standards. It lay in decommissioned status until 2002, when Wayne County purchased the 44 acre parcel with the vision of restoring the area to its natural state, and making it accessible for public use.

 In a unique partnership, most of the Gateway is still owned by Wayne County, which administers it as a part of its Parks and Recreation Division of Public Services, while the federal government, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service owns the Dingell Visitor Center.  The county and federal government work collaboratively to manage the site.  

Together, with citizens, non-governmental organizations, businesses, and local communities—all entities seek to build and sustain the capacity of the Refuge.

 Wayne County Executive Warren Evans said, “Wayne County residents have unparalleled access to a diversity of parks and recreational activities outdoors.  The Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge is an important addition to the cultural, environmental, and educational attributes of the Downriver area.”

 Susan White, Refuge Gateway Manager, expresses a collective excitement, “It’s been a long time coming, and we are indebted to and appreciate the work, support and patience of our partners and our communities to make this controlled opening happen.

 “We can’t wait to see you here enjoying your public lands, and enjoying the great outdoors that this special place has to offer. Due to the concerns related to public safety and COVID-19, we are not having a ‘grand opening’ that would bring a large crowd gathering.  Nor are we conducting educational programming at this time.  

“The John D. Dingell, Jr. Visitor Center is still under construction and remains closed at this time.” said White.

 “The original opening was scheduled for May 9, and we said, ‘Come hell or high water, we would be opening.’  At the end of March, our staff said, ‘we have high water.’  And as April, then May approached, hell also was here.

 “We are so happy to welcome folks to the Refuge Gateway and Humbug Marsh!”

 Visitors are able to enjoy self-guided hiking, fishing, bird-watching, or simply basking in all the physical or mental health benefits of being close to nature and out-of-doors.  

In order to expand the recreational opportunities and expedite greater access, visitors are encouraged to adhere to Centers of Disease Control and Prevention COVID-19 guidelines throughout the Gateway and Humbug Marsh sites.

 Areas open to the public include parking area for 120 vehicles; biking and walking pathways from the Downriver Linked Greenways Trails to paved trails within the Gateway (bikes are not allowed in the Humbug Marsh Unit); the stunning 700-foot fishing pier—architecturally rendered to be a treefall in the river with “dragonfly” canopies: the Monguagon Boardwalk around the pond closest to Jefferson Avenue; native flora and fauna; reclaimed industrial brownfields which now offer commanding vistas of the river, islands, and marshland. 

 When you stand on the hill overlooking the river, a mystic sense of nature’s power and awe overcomes you. You instantly realize this place is good for your mind and body, heart and soul.

 Southward, a footbridge provides access to the adjacent Humbug Marsh Unit, a 410-acre preserve that contains the last mile of natural shoreline along the U.S. portion of the Detroit River.  

Humbug Marsh was designated as Michigan’s first “Wetlands of International Importance” by the Ramsar Convention in 2010.  It contains a vast biodiversity of habitats, and is a significant stopover for many migratory birds, and a great hotspot for thriving fish populations. Portions of the Orange Trail, near the river are closed due to flooding.  The western Green Trail is open for travel.

 In late July, the Director of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Aurelia Skipwith, visited the Refuge Gateway and Humbug Unit. She, along with a Congressional delegation, which included Congresswomen Debbie Dingell (D-MI) and Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) toured the progress made on reclaiming the former industrial brownfield site. 

 Federal Director Skipwith, a native of Indianapolis, was most impressed with the restoration work of the Refuge Gateway, and the history behind Saving Humbug Marsh.  

“It is exciting the progress that has been made to get us to this point,” she said. “This urban refuge is truly a little oasis where people will be able to take part in local outdoor activities that will bring them closer to nature.”

 In the controlled opening of the Refuge Gateway and Humbug Marsh, Skipwith asserted, “After careful analysis, every decision we make is based on sound science, the rule of law, and common sense.”

 Joann Van Aken, Executive Director of the International Wildlife Refuge Alliance concurred.

“This is the realization of a dream held by many people for a long time,” she said. “Thanks are given to the more than 300 partnerships and the hundreds of people who have worked and supported the vision of restoring an industrial brownfield to a public green space, offering recreational and educational access in an urban setting.”

 Congresswoman Debbie Dingell (D-MI) said, “I’m thrilled the day is here and now the whole community can take advantage of this very special place.

“The Refuge is a critical service to the Downriver community and a place for all to appreciate the outdoors. This refuge was John’s dream and his footprints are all over.  After decades, and the incredibly hard work of many, his vision is now reality and a place to gather, learn, and protect the wildlife and natural resources that make our region unique.”