Marsh Restoration Protects

Critical Wildlife Habitat

Restoring Tobico Marsh was part of a larger effort to heal damaged wetlands and remove contaminated sediments from the Saginaw River and Saginaw Bay. The bay is one of the prime walleye fishing and waterfowl-hunting areas in the Great Lakes, despite serious environmental problems.


Before European immigrants settled the Midwest, the Saginaw Bay watershed contained one of the most extensive wetland and wet prairie complexes in the Great Lakes. The watershed contained about 700,000 acres of wetlands, which supported huge populations of migratory birds, fish and other aquatic life. Tobico Marsh is a 1,652-acre national landmark adjacent to Saginaw Bay. Land use changes over the past 150 years—due primarily to agricultural activities and urban development—polluted bottom sediments in the Saginaw River, caused significant loss of wetlands around Saginaw Bay and altered the natural movement of water and aquatic life between the bay and Tobico Marsh, which features a large lagoon and extensive marshes. Those problems were significant because fish and wildlife habitat in Tobico Marsh was a critical part of the Lake Huron ecosystem and a cornerstone of Saginaw Bay’s valuable fishing and tourism economy. In 1987, the Saginaw River/Bay was designated a Great Lakes Area of Concern. The designation spurred an ambitious effort by government agencies, conservation groups and other private foundations to clean up contaminated sediments and restore wetlands around the bay.

Resource Challenges Addressed

  • Polluted sediment
  • Loss of wetland habitat
  • Diminished fish and wildlife community


Looking out over water with lily pads

Waterways and wetlands, like the one pictured above, provide important habitat for fish and wildlife. Credit: John Matters.

Results and Accomplishments

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service partnered with the state of Michigan and the Saginaw Chippewa Tribe of Michigan to assess damage to natural resources in the Saginaw River and Saginaw Bay. That natural resource damage assessment led to a settlement with General Motors Corp. and the cities of Bay City and Saginaw, which had discharged PCBs and other pollutants into the river and bay. The agreement provided funds for the removal of contaminated sediments in the river and restoration of fish and wildlife habitat along the river and around Saginaw Bay. More than 900 acres of wetlands were restored in Tobico Marsh and roughly 25,000 acres of wetlands around Saginaw Bay were permanently protected through land purchases and conservation easements. Restoring wetlands could pay huge dividends for the Saginaw Bay region, which is very popular among anglers, hunters and birders. A study by Southwick Associates concluded that the baseline value of recreational activities in Saginaw Bay’s coastal marshes would be worth $239 million over a 30-year period.