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Editorial page editor Nolan Finley talks with former U.S. Rep. John Dingell on the progress of the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge, whose creation he spurred in 2002 to clean and save a section of the Detroit River in its natural state. Clarence Tabb

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John Dingell’s legacy as the nation’s longest-serving congressman is sealed in the stacks of legislation that bear his name.

Bills to clean the nation’s air and water, to protect civil rights, to assure the safety of food and medicine. Over 60 years in the House, he stood strong for autoworkers, for legal gun owners, for the sick and the elderly.

But when Dingell, 91, weighs the impact of his life’s work, he doesn’t look to the Congressional Record, but to an undisturbed stretch of the Detroit River known as the Humbug Marsh.

“When future generations come here, they won’t know who did this,” Dingell says, while visiting the riverbank in southeastern Wayne County. “But they’ll know what we did, and they’ll thank us for it.”

What Dingell did was save the last mile of undeveloped riverfront, and then declare that if a mile was worth preserving, the rest of the Detroit River was as well.

Fifteen years later, the Humbug Marsh is part of the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge, which stretches on both sides of the river from Lake Erie to downtown Detroit/Windsor. It includes 13,000 acres of land in preserve, some of it still privately owned, some in public/private trusts and some, like Humbug, in parks and natural areas. The refuge lands were picked up a parcel at a time, some large some tiny.

“We begged, borrowed and bought to put it all together,” Dingell says. “But we got it.”

And that’s largely because of Dingell’s determination to restore the river he fished with his father as a boy.

As a young congressman, Dingell says he was distressed by the deteriorating conditions of the Detroit River, which runs along the Downriver communities he served. By that time, the river was so polluted game fish were limited, and those that were caught often were deformed by sores and parasites.

Dingell, who retired in 2015, is an avid outdoorsman who dreamed of seeing the Detroit River as again a haven for hunters and fishermen. A desire to clean the river was the impetus behind his authorship of the Clean Water Act in 1972, one of the nation’s most significant environmental laws.

Over the decades of Dingell’s service, the massive steel, chemical and manufacturing plants that line nearly every inch of the river began to close, leaving behind rotting industrial hulks and hopelessly contaminated land.

That made Humbug, which had been preserved in its natural state for a century by its owner, McClouth Steel, as a hunting and fishing camp for its executive, particularly precious. But by the early 2000s, McClouth was gone, and developers were eyeing Humbug for a marina, golf course and luxury housing.

Dingell had to race the bulldozers to get his bill authorizing the international refuge through Congress, with help from former Sen. Carl Levin and friends in the Canadian Parliament.

“Some of the trees were already being cut,” says John Hartig of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the refuge. “I can’t say enough about how essential John Dingell has been to restoring and preserving the Detroit River.”

The refuge is preparing to open a visitor’s center in Humbug, and by spring hopes to complete a fishing pier that will stretch into the river and allow those without boats a chance at landing one of the trophy walleye or sturgeon that have returned to make the Detroit River a prime fishing venue.

Nearly $50 million has been raised to acquire and restore land since 2002. Volunteers are now rushing to find another $50,000 to qualify for a matching grant that will put the finishing touches on the visitor center and pier. And there’s still several more parcels to be acquired. By law, the refuge can’t use eminent domain to take land. So Dingell has had to wheedle, plead and bargain to collect them. He remains the river’s chief advocate.

“Every night he asks me, ‘What did you do for the refuge today?’ ” says his wife, Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, who followed him to Congress and has taken up the river’s cause. “It’s his passion.”

And not a bad legacy, to be remembered as the man who saved the Detroit River.

nfinley@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @NolanFinleyDN

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