National Wildlife Refuge System

Visitor Center for Detroit River Refuge

November 12, 2013 - In a neighborhood surrounded by automobile plants and heavy industry, ground has been broken for the Refuge Gateway Visitor Center at one of the nation’s most urban refuges – Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge in Michigan.

Humbug Marsh offers bald eagles, rare dragonflies, 300-year old oak trees and the biggest walleye ever caught in a professional tournament.
Credit: USFWS
The site of a new visitor center for Detroit River Refuge, MI, is in the midst of a heavy industrial area outside Detroit.
Credit: USFWS

Look one direction from the site of the new visitor center and the horizon is lined with industrial towers. Look the other direction and the eye rests on Humbug Marsh, one of only 34 Wetlands of International Importance in the United States and the only Ramsar site in Michigan (named for Ramsar, Iran, where the Wetlands convention was adopted in 1971).  The 410-acre Humbug Marsh Unit of the refuge is also the last mile of natural Detroit River shoreline on the U.S. mainland. It is at the intersection of two major migratory bird routes and an important nursery for fish. 

Michigan Congressman John Dingell introduced legislation establishing the refuge in 2001 and said during the groundbreaking, “As a young boy growing up in Southeast Michigan, I have many fond memories of hunting and fishing along the shores of the Detroit River and Lake Erie with my dear old dad. The banks of the River looked a lot different than they do now. There was less concrete and more trees, less brick and mortar and more wetlands. This groundbreaking is yet another step in preserving and protecting land so important to our region and so dear to my heart. The visitor’s center will open the doors to all kinds of people to learn and appreciate the great outdoors as I have all my life here on the banks of the Detroit River and Lake Erie.”

In addition to a visitor center, plans call for an accessible 775-foot pier to provide shore-based access to some of the best walleye fishing in the world.  Michigan Sea Grant Extension plans to provide ship-based education on the Detroit River and Lake Erie from a vessel docked at the refuge.  A canoe and kayak launch is nearby. 

Brake Pads to Wetland Buffer
The Refuge Gateway property housed a Chrysler manufacturing facility for brake pad adhesives from 1946 to 1990.  Thanks to dramatic cleanup efforts, the area made one of the most impressive environmental recoveries in North America, detailed in a book by refuge manager John Hartig called Burning Rivers.

A Priority Natural Area - the Canadian equivalent of the Detroit River Refuge - was officially established in 2012, with a goal of preserving wetlands and natural habitat along both sides of the Detroit River and Lake Erie.

Marsh Transformed
The transformation of Humbug Marsh included restoration of wetland and upland habitat, removal of underground storage tanks and hazardous waste, and control of invasive phragmites. The Humbug Marsh unit already has a rustic environmental education center, interpretive signs and two trails where the refuge staff and the International Wildlife Refuge Alliance organize public open houses and school field trips. 

The Refuge Alliance is still raising funds to complete all of the projects, but the marsh facilities and the visitor center are expected to open to the public permanently by 2015.

“It’s the Detroit River like you’ve never seen it,” concluded The Windsor Star newspaper.


 The Incredible Story of Humbug Marsh in The Windsor Star

Director Dan Ashe, Regional Director Tom Melius and Congressman John Dingell joined local students and conservation partners in breaking ground for the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge Gateway Visitor Center.
Credit: Tina Shaw/USFWS

Last updated: November 11, 2013