Lake Erie's southern coastline forms the entire northern boundary of Ohio. But most of that land is in private hands and under intense pressure from development. Scientists say conservation of coastal regions is essential for improving water quality, preventing flooding, and preserving essential habitat for birds and other wildlife. But there's another reason to conserve coastal areas that a group of people in Sandusky Bay hope will make a difference to the local economy. They're betting that a new kind of tourism will not only preserve the beauty of the Lake Erie shore, but provides jobs and income as well. ideastream's Karen Schaefer reports.
Karen Schaefer: To the east is Sheldon Marsh. To the west, Cedar Point. Sandwiched in between is a group of local landowners who are willing to sacrifice a developer's price for their property in order to preserve it for the future. On a sunlit August morning they've come to Gil Steinen's farm just east of Huron to talk about why they'd like to sell their land to the county for a nature preserve. Bob Stockdale has lived here all his life. His father bought the property in 1931.
Bob Stockdale: We skinny-dipped in the bay out here. That's how intimately I knew it. (lots of laughter) We used to be in the country. Nobody had any interest in us - it's only been in recent years that development has posed a potential threat to the pristine nature of the area.
KS: Gil Steinen's great-grandfather Joseph bought his land in 1870 and cleared much of it for farming. But a wide strip of land along the bay remains nearly pristine.
Gil Steinen: We don't have it all under cultivation, we leave a lot of it as you've probably seen, for wildlife.
KS: ...and we saw the wildlife this morning.
GS: Some of 'em. We didn't see any deer or coyotes or fox, I don't know what you seen.
KS: We saw an eagle.
GS: Well, there's about 8 of them around here.
KS: Eight eagles?
GS: Yeah, we've seen four adults and four juveniles together.
KS: Steinen's land lies at the mouth of Plum Brook where it enters Sandusky Bay. It's directly in the path of the Mississippi Flyway, the annual migration of more than 300 species of birds. It's also home to the oldest and largest population of nesting bald eagles in Ohio. Another eagle soars over a bank of yellow water lotus as Senator Mike DeWine tells landowners he's willing to help.
Mike DeWine: Lake Erie has not gotten the attention, let's say, the Everglades have gotten in the last couple of years - or the Chesapeake Bay, some other absolutely wonderful places in this country. And what we've been trying to do in cooperation with some of the governors and some of the other people in Washington is to try to put more emphasis on the Great Lakes from a conservation point of view and to say, look, this is a very precious thing.
KS: DeWine has asked for $2 million from next year's federal budget. He wants to help buy this stretch of coastal marsh from willing landowners for the Erie County Metroparks. Metroparks Director Jon Granville says it's not all about the birds.
Jon Granville: Beautiful place - one of the last, largest unprotected natural marshes on the Lake Erie coast, in Ohio... Preserving the natural characteristics will in many ways stimulate the local economies, from travel and tourism to just the impact of having a clean source of water for industry, for commerce. And those original reasons why people moved to this area early on haven't changed.
KS: At least one local businesswoman agrees. Joan Faber has run the Maples Motel on Route 6 for the last 24 years.
Joan Faber: I mean, I love the motel. Being from Detroit, it's like heaven being here in the summer. My customers are great. I get about 60% return. Some nights I know almost everyone there.
KS: But business could be better. Tourism is the primary industry in the Sandusky Bay area, the jumping off place for Cedar Point Amusement Park and the Lake Erie Islands. But it's also big business for the entire coastal region and - ultimately - for the state. Melinda Huntley is director of Lake Erie Coastal Ohio, a new non-profit organization that's helping to develop Lake Erie tourism.
Melinda Huntley: There's a lot of room for improvement. Tourism is big business along Lake Erie, it's a $7 billion business and is responsible for 264,000 jobs, but it's changing and it's in trouble.
KS: At a recent meeting of state agencies charged with protecting lake resources, Huntley described a new kind of Lake Erie tourist.
MH: We have worked and marketed towards the family travel market for a long, long time. That market is shrinking. What we're doing is creating a product that is going to attract people who can travel during the spring, during the fall, and during the midweek - the exact opposite time that our family traveler is already here. Think of the enormous economic good that will do.
KS: Extend that good - money spent by birdwatchers, nature photographers, and hiking clubs - all along the Western Basin of Lake Erie. Then you can see why Congressman John Dingell of Michigan recently introduced legislation that would put federal dollarsbnehind the creation of a new coastal wildlife refuge. It would stretch all the way from Detroit to Vermilion, Ohio. Toledo's Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur is also backing the measure. None of these efforts to preserve coastal land will happen overnight. But by as early as next year, local landowners and government leaders could be taking the first steps toward creating a new Lake Erie coastline in Ohio. In Sandusky Bay, Karen Schaefer, 90.3.