A Vision for the Great Lakes

Recently, I was invited to speak to a gathering of trustees from The Nature Conservancy (TNC). The representatives from TNC chapters throughout the Great Lakes met in Buffalo October 4-6, 2016. These are my slightly modified remarks.

Forty years ago I was lost in a distant part of the Great Lakes ecosystem.  I was somewhere in the Canadian Bush north of Sault Ste Marie.  I was on a three-week long canoe trip with my summer Y camp with 10 boys who were trying to cross from some lakes and streams in the Mississagi watershed, part of Lake Huron, to the Montreal River in the Lake Superior watershed. We were about a week into the trip, and it had been a competition of paddling prowess.  As you might expect from a group of testosterone-driven teenagers, we showed off with who could portage a canoe–solo–the furthest, who could carry the most duluth packs at once, and even who could make the most paddle strokes without stopping.  
But that changed somewhere north of Farewell Lake.  We had arrived the day before after a long paddle in the rain, and it was hard to find any dry ground around the swampy lake to make a camp.  We slept in wet tents, woke up to a cold, grey morning and set off on what we knew to be the longest portage of the trip.  As usual, several of us charged ahead and waded through muskeg of mud and water, found ways around fallen trees, and looked for faded blazes.  But then what we thought to be the trail disappeared into a beaver pond, and all around us were tightly packed saplings that made carrying a canoe solo an impossible task.  Disoriented and discouraged by the rain, we knew not our location, our route, or our destination. Packs were hurled to the ground, epithets were sworn; blame was assigned.
But then we regrouped, and one of our counselors–a seminary student from Ohio–got us organized.  We consulted maps and compasses, a few people scouted various routes, we made some initial decisions about directions, paired up to pull the canoes forward, and helped each other make our way to an alder-choked stream flowing toward Lake Superior.  And somewhere on that watershed divide, we changed from a group of boys flexing their muscles, to a team of young adults who learned to rely on one another and achieve goals together.
Where are We? with our effort to restore the whole system of the Great Lakes.  We have lots of seasoned and powerful paddlers:  seven chapters of The Nature Conservancy, state and provincial agencies with strong regulatory powers, the financial resources of two countries, several multi-party international bodies, and countless non-governmental organizations and other partners.  But, with all of that power, are we making progress commensurate with the skills we have?   Is our destination–our purpose–clear to everyone?  Do we even really know where we are on this journey?  How do we measure progress? Who should be doing what?  Are we each carrying our own canoe, or is there a more effective way to employ our abilities?
This is our task the next two days: for all of us to share the knowledge we bring, to fully understand a whole system strategies for the Great Lakes, and talk about how we can work together to ensure the health of the Great Lakes as a well managed ecosystem with twenty percent of the world’s freshwater, upon which all life depends.  
The Nature Conservancy in the Great Lakes. We are not new to this.  TNC has been working in the Great Lakes, across state borders, since 1993. Our work has evolved: we first launched the Great Lakes Biodiversity Data System in collaboration with The Nature Conservancy of Canada. We then conducted ecoregional planning at the Great Lakes scale. Over the years, TNC has added tools to its work chest—going from straightforward land deals, to great big, very complex real estate deals, to taking on huge problems that affect the entire Great Lakes, like water management through the Great Lakes Compact.  
TNC in the Great Lakes is a shining example of our organization’s evolution from sites to systems, from properties to policies.  To accomplish this growth, we have come together as chapters and trustees several times.  Two years ago we met in Chicago; in 2011 we met in Dearborn.  We held our first summit on Mackinac Island in 2008.  We have accomplished much in our work, but we still face the challenges of working at scale, of coordinating chapters and aligning with partners, and of finding solutions for both nature and people. .
The Great Lakes are at risk, and as we heard from Jerry Dennis, we are under appreciated; The Great Lakes “is a place so large that it’s overlooked, so familiar that it’s invisible, so beloved that it’s despised, so precious that we’re intent upon ransacking it.” The challenges we face are many:
  • habitat has been lost, water quality degraded at an unprecedented level due to unsustainable use of lands and water, and our unique biodiversity has been diminished
  • These environmental challenges threaten the culture, history, and our outdoor way of life here in the Great Lakes; our communities are at risk
  • If our natural systems are not healthy, we won’t be healthy.  The 40 million people of this region depend on the Great Lakes ecosystem for drinking water and economic vitality.  And as we have learned in Flint, a failure to manage our environmental and economic systems, can have devastating impacts on nature and human systems.

We know that the challenges we face in the Great Lakes do not exist in isolation.  We know first hand that we have to reach across not only state boundaries, but also international ones. We also know that issues we wrestle with — fresh water, sustainable agriculture, balancing of economy and environment, to name a few — are topics of global importance.  We will have the chance at this conference  to reflect on how our work can be of value in other places–like the Great Lakes in Africa– and how the lessons learned there by TNC can inform our work here.
The Great Lakes are a global asset.  Taken together, the Great Lakes of North American and the Great Lakes of Africa represent over half the surface fresh water in the world. We have both a special responsibility and an extraordinary opportunity to address some of the planet’s biggest challenges.  In this place and at this time we can develop, pilot, prove, and then deploy powerful conservation strategies of global significance.
  • The Great Lakes make up the largest freshwater system on earth, and to protect it we need to develop state of the art agricultural practices, we need to come up with urban runoff solutions at scale, and we need to learn how to reconnect the most important rivers and streams in a watershed.    And The Nature Conservancy is putting boots on the ground to do these things.
  • The Great Lakes sustains a $4 billion commercial and recreational fishing industry and to protect it  we need bring together world-class research and our best minds, we need to restore native species and the natural spawning systems upon which they depend, and we need to build an international system to detect and prevent invasive species.  And, TNC is on the ground–and in the water–with this effort too.
  • The  Great Lakes economy–the 3rd largest in the world if it were a nation–was built on, and relies on–our natural resources: forests, farms, and, most of all, water.   We need to understand and fully value our natural capital. We need to employ practices sound in both science and economy. We need to pilot innovative finance solutions to rebuild our cities, which are the pride of our past and the answer to a sustainable future. And TNC is here already with these strategies.

  • And, the Great Lakes ecosystem is uniquely diverse with more than 3500 species of plants and animals, some of which are found nowhere else on earth (like the Kirtland’s Warbler).              We need to identify and protect the inter-related parts of this system:  the rivers and lake, forests and fields, and coasts and wetlands.  We have the responsibility to conserve this natural system, and the privilege to protect some of the most beautiful places on the planet.   And this is the legacy of TNC.
The Nature Conservancy envisions a world where the diversity of life thrives and people act to conserve nature for its own sake, and for its ability to fulfill our needs and enrich our lives. This is our vision for the Great Lakes: a thriving natural system, well managed, with its citizens fully engaged in conserving nature.
How we do our work.  The Nature Conservancy starts with the best science.  They develop practical, outcome based solutions to our most pressing conservation challenges. They of course protect key lands and waters, and they transform how those lands and water are used through policy work with both the public and private sectors.  TNC is always pragmatic and seeks to leverage economic forces to expand the impact of its strategies.  They don’t do this work alone: they partner with many conservation organizations, governments and businesses to develop effective conservation solutions that are at the scale and pace that a system of this size merits.  And TNC helps inspire the leadership necessary to make change and safeguard the freshwater treasure that is the Great Lakes.
Let’s turn to five specific strategies. While TNC concentrates now on a few strategies, they are pursuing other priorities as well.  And we will continue to scan the landscape to look for other pressing issues where we can make a difference.  For instance, the question of the transport of oil through the Great Lakes via pipelines, and the related energy issues, is now a topic of wide attention.   The Nature Conservancy has never been static in its work, and it must continue to evolve in its thinking, purposes, and approaches to conservation.  
  1. Aquatic invasive species have fundamentally altered the food webs of the Great Lakes, and are the Conservancy’s top regional priority.  Exotic species have invaded every level of the food web, and when combined with other stressors like pollution and climate change, can have an even greater impact on the native fishery and outdoor recreation. TNC is working with others to monitor for new invasions, to manage populations of existing invasive species to limit their spread, and to create consistent state, provincial, and federal policies across the Great Lakes Basin.
  2. Native fish: Lake herring and whitefish were once prolific in the Great Lakes. Their populations have been affected by overfishing, pollution and invasive species. TNC is working with state and federal agencies, anglers, and the academic community to restore a more diverse fishery by gathering data to understand population declines, restoring habitat, removing invasive predators, and reintroducing native fish.
  3. Agriculture: on the one hand, the rich soils and productive farms of the Great Lakes provide us, the nation, and the world with  food. On the other hand, our changes to the landscape to facilitate farming degrade water quality, by tiling and draining to change the natural movement of water, and by inadvertently adding fertilizer and sediment to our waterways through runoff. TNC is working with the agricultural community—from farmers up the supply chain to agribusiness–to develop science-based, targeted, outcome based  incentives and programs that to both  improve water quality and flow in Great Lakes agricultural watersheds, and model how to achieve a higher return on investment for both agribusiness and the U.S. Farm Bill.
  4. Connectivity: Thousands of dams and poorly designed road culverts block streams and disconnect tributaries from larger bodies of water. As a result, native fish populations have declined, water quality has worsened, and our natural systems don’t work right. TNC is working with partners to map barriers and remove the most damaging dams and culverts from our waterways, and to influence policies to direct limited resources to best restore river connections across the basin.
  5. Blue Accounting is the tool to tie all this work together.  Every day, leaders across the Great Lakes basin make strategic decisions intended to enhance the quality and sustainability of this natural system. However, there is an information gap between the decisions these leaders make and the results of the programs they influence. We lack shared goals around issues and a process to measure the combined effects of the many programs and efforts across the basin. TNC and the Great Lakes Commission have partnered, with cornerstone support from the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, to develop Blue Accounting. This tool brings together stakeholders to collaborate on their work, helps set region-wide goals, integrates many existing data sources to track progress more efficiently and transforms the way information is shared via an online platform.
TNC has some bold aspirations. They have added the expertise and built the capacity to deliver on these strategies.  They are some strong paddlers working on protecting and restoring the Great Lakes.  But are the right people paired up in the right canoes?  Do we have a clear sight of the path we are on, or have lost our ways amongst small trees?  Do we know where we are, and whether we are making progress?   Do we have a team, and a strategy to deploy our best talent and leaders across borders to  solve problems?
TNC trustees and other volunteer leaders play a vital role. They give perspective to our work, help us look up from the portage trail and see a bigger picture.  They are the scouts that might help us find a better way, or help us avoid delay or danger.  They certainly play a role by encouraging those who do the hard work, cheering us on.  Your support–financial and otherwise–help us lift the load, enabling more work to be accomplished.  You help us build partnerships, acting as translators when we meet those in other tribes:  business, academia, government.   
Sunset on Lake Erie with Buffalo in the background
Collaboration is the new watchword of conservation. I recently heard a government official reflect that conservation used to be about one agency implementing one law with one goal. The complexity and seriousness of our conservation challenges now demand a broader, more inclusive approach. The Great Lakes are, in the words of Jerry Dennis, an “amazing, messy, contradictory” ecosystem, and to save them we will need four things:
  1. A vision broad enough to take in the special, massive place that is the Great Lakes and it’s many parts and players;
  2. A strategy, or strategies, that tackle several parts of the problems at the same time, as well as build on the assets and opportunities we have in the Great Lakes;
  3. Collaboration between the many organizations, agencies, and governments that are all committed to a healthy, well-managed future for the Great Lakes.
  4. A way to measure our progress towards our goals, track the outcomes of our work and create accountability for meeting our goals.
There is an African saying that applies to our work:

To learn more about TNC’s work on the Great Lakes of North America, go here

To learn more about TNC’s work on Lake Tanganyika, go here

Thank you to the staff and trustees of Central and Western New York Chapter of The Nature Conservancy for their hospitality.

Thank you to Mary Jean Huston and the other expert staff of The Nature Conservancy for their input to these remarks.

One thought on “A Vision for the Great Lakes

  1. A one-time Ohio seminarian would like to thank Tom Cook for his kind words. If other readers suspect that Tom is a better preacher than I ever was, well, you're on to something. I rejoice in Tom's powerful advocacy for our woods and waters.The thing I like best about this sermon is how it allows a complex metaphor to lead into his point. That canoe trip he mentions was filled with triumphs and failures – at the leadership level and every other. My mistakes in those three weeks still weigh on me; the joy I felt in the company of those kids in that magnificent setting: well, it still thrills. What is left, after these balance out, is precisely that lesson about what people can accomplish together. That next portage always awaits.


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