A nonprofit marine heritage group is throwing its support behind an entrepreneur who believes he has located the Great Lakes' oldest shipwreck but is battling with the state over rights to oversee it.
The Center for Maritime and Underwater Resource Management wants to help Steve Libert determine whether the wreckage he found in 2001 is the Griffon, the 17th century ship built by the French explorer La Salle.
"Government alone should not be writing our maritime history," Ken Vrana, president of the center, said Monday. "We should all be involved."
The Griffon disappeared on its maiden voyage in 1679 after setting sail from an island near Green Bay, Wis., with a crew of six and a cargo of furs and other goods. It's believed to have sunk in northern Lake Michigan.
Libert's company, Great Lakes Exploration Group LLC, and marine archaeologists issued a report last month with findings from their examinations of what they believe may be the Griffon's bowsprit.
Carbon testing of wood slivers shows they could date to the period when the Griffon was built, Vrana said at a news conference. Historical research also shows the area where the wreckage was found is consistent with where the ship likely foundered, he said.
Magnetic and acoustic testing of the wreckage suggests a "wood hull vessel of an early build," he said. "Does this mean that this site is Griffon? No, this is not conclusive evidence at this point," Vrana said.
The next step is closer examination in hopes of positively identifying the wreckage, Vrana said. His organization will help by crafting a plan describing things such as methods and technologies to be used, costs, and a schedule.
Keep it a secret
Libert refuses to disclose the exact site of the wreckage, saying he doesn't want to tip off looters and sport divers who might damage it. He wants a promise from the state that he can stay involved as the wreckage is studied and take part in decisions about what to do with it.
"I want to work together, but you have to give credit where credit's due," Libert said. "I've been working on this for nearly 30 years."
But Michigan officials say the state owns all abandoned Great Lakes shipwrecks within its jurisdiction and Libert has no claim to the Griffon. They want to determine what's there before making any deals about his future involvement.
"They haven't adequately described what they think is down there," said Peter Manning, an assistant state attorney general.
"This could be a fishing net pole, it could be a piece of lumber from a different ship. The real question is, have we been denied the right to go out there and have a look at it ourselves? I should say we have."
Libert says he's informed the state of the debris field's general location, but state officials say that's not specific enough.
He also wants the state to sign an agreement to keep the location private. Manning said that's a moot point because U.S. District Judge Robert Holmes Bell, who is hearing a federal lawsuit in the dispute, issued a confidentiality order.
Bell is expected to rule soon on Libert's request for rights to salvage, search and study the wreckage and restrict access to others.