Restoring fish habitat by

getting the wood out

Thousands of tons of wood waste are being removed from the St. Louis River estuary to restore fish habitat.


In the late 1800s, two sawmills and a railroad crossing were built on wood pilings that were pounded into the bottom of Radio Tower Bay, in the St. Louis River estuary.  The river is a major tributary of Lake Superior and its estuary is the largest coastal wetland in the Lake Superior basin. The sawmills dumped thousands of tons of wood waste — sawdust, slab wood and other debris — in Radio Tower Bay. Those disposal practices, which were unregulated at the time, buried valuable fish habitat and left a layer of wood waste on the bottom of the bay that ranged from four feet to eight feet thick. The wood waste was one of many environmental problems that resulted in the St. Louis River and Bay being designated one of 43 Great Lakes Areas of Concern in 1987. In 2012, workers removed 250 derelict wood pilings from the bay. Crews deployed massive equipment that used vibration and brute force to extract the pilings from the ice-covered bay. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in 2013 awarded another $1.5 million grant to continue the removal of wood waste from Radio Tower Bay. Once complete, the project will restore the natural depth of the bay, rehabilitate about 40 acres of fish and wildlife habitat, and improve public access to the bay. Achieving that will require removing about 41,000 tons of wood waste, concrete pylons, and 100,000 cubic yards of excess sediment from the bay. The work will restore prime habitat for walleye, lake sturgeon and other fish species. The Radio Tower Bay cleanup is part of a larger effort to restore 1,400 acres of fish and wildlife habitat in the lower St. Louis River, and get the river de-listed as a list of Great Lakes Areas of Concern. The wood waste extracted from the bay will be recycled.

Resource Challenges Addressed

  • Loss of fish and wildlife habitat
  • Degraded water quality
  • Loss of public access


Wood sticks out of the water in an industrial area

Wood waste that was dumped into Radio Tower Bay, similar to the bay pictured, harmed fish habitat and prevented public access to the bay for more than a century. Credit: John Karl Wisconsin Sea Grant.

Results and Accomplishments

During the first phase of the project, crews removed 146 metric tons of wood waste from the bay, including 250 wood pilings.  The entire project will remove nearly 117,000 cubic yards of wood waste from Radio Tower Bay, restore the natural depth of the bay and 40 acres of fish habitat.