How can our divided country come together? Where can we meet the tribe that lives on the other side of the deep fractures that separate us? What if there were a common topic, an issue, that pulled us together rather than pushed us further apart? There is, and it is all around us.
The cause was made official by President Obama, but also endorsed by President Trump. Funding for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative has received unanimous, bi-partisan support every two years in Congress by those who represent our common geography. The Great Lakes, and the land between them, bind us all together. Nature knows no party, water flows across political boundaries, and the food from the land feeds us all.
Those of us in the Great Lakes are stewards of 20 percent of the surface freshwater on the planet, and we cherish them as our identity and our well-being. But more than just outlining our state on back-window stickers, the five Great Lakes connect us with the natural world. The Great Lakes are features of the planet visible from space, and the view reminds us that the earth is our home we share with all its inhabitants, human and otherwise.
Support for water and land. Water sustains life, and the rivers on our land connect to the Great Lakes, as do our abundant underground aquifers, rightly called the sixth Great Lake. We all benefit from this source of our drinking water; we all have a responsibility to protect water quality. Just this March, strong bi-partisan majorities in the Michigan Legislature voted to spend more than $2 billion to upgrade water infrastructure, replace lead pipes, and improve sewage treatment.
The quality of our water depends on how we treat the land, and Michiganders love the land as much as they champion the Great Lakes. Our scenic landscapes provide us with livelihoods, food and timber, and outdoor escapes that we turned to in record numbers to survive the pandemic. Generations ago we may have taken forest, field, water and wildlife for granted, but now we know we must act to preserve our natural areas.
Michigan voters have time and again endorsed funding for parks and open space. In 1984, Michigan’s citizens adopted Proposal B to create the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund in the State Constitution. This land preservation funding source was created by a Republican governor who struck a compromise in 1976 to allow for oil and gas drilling in the Pigeon River area over the objections of environmental advocates.
The innovative program directs proceeds from the sale of State fossil fuel leases to a fund used to purchase natural areas, create numerous local parks and preserve, and bolster our State Parks. To prevent mischief from politicians of both parties, voters in 1984 established the Trust Fund in the Constitution, and re-affirmed it twice more in ballot measures. In a fourth statewide statement, in 2020, voters in every one of Michigan’s 83 counties passed Proposal 1 to make the Trust Fund permanent and give it the flexibility to both acquire new land and invest in existing parks and trails.
Political divisions cut deeper in Michigan than any of the geologic faults visible on its surface, and like our nation we have set up camps based on geography, religion, race, and political party. George Packer in his book “Last Best Hope” defines Four Americas: Free America, Smart America, Real America, and Just America. While he subscribes to the popular, but incomplete, definition of blue states versus red states, he doesn’t map his Four Americas because they are largely place-less political perspectives.
Packer’s descriptions of these Four Americas are equally sympathetic and critical, and while each of them exerts power, he doesn’t believe that anyone of them offers the path forward. Rather, he hopes for an Equal America that can coalesce the best of our parts. But I believe he misses how each of his Americas relates to, and appreciates, nature. Perhaps a connection to natural places can be the common cause to unite our camps.
While relying on stereotypes, we might characterize the outdoor habits of the Four Americas like this:
- Free America, which politically represents Libertarian views, embodies our nation’s pioneer and explorer traditions where man tests himself against nature. We can see it today in the backpacker or multi-day hunter who hikes off into large wilderness areas of the Upper Peninsula, or in the backwoods cabin flying a “don’t tread on me” flag.
- Smart America, who tend to be liberal policy wonks, can be found in one of our national parks with the latest outdoor gear. Rather than challenging nature, they want to study and appreciate nature while bird-watching or fly-fishing. Politically, count on them to belong to an environmental advocacy organization and be very concerned about climate change.
- Real America, working class conservatives whose parents might have been Democrats, either make their living outside as farmers or loggers, and/or hunt and fish the Northwoods. These traditionalists take their families camping in one of our many state parks, make use of boat launches on inland lakes, and would prefer the label conservationist if active in environmental issues.
- Just America, progressives who tend to live in urban areas, increasingly are getting out-of-doors as our parks and trails become more inclusive. Consumers of organic food, they are concerned with toxic pollution of air and water. Politically, concerns with environmental justice align with other social causes and climate change advocacy.
These of course are simplistic descriptions, and many of us would identify with more than one of these groups. But that’s the point: we are all complicated, and hopefully willing to modify our political views when it comes to particular issues, candidates, and elections. George Packer wants us to identify as Equal America, equal in opportunity but not necessarily in outcomes. Despite, or perhaps because of, our diversity, America aspires to be a society without classes.
“Democracy is not just parchment and marble, the Constitution, rights, laws, and institutions,” concludes Packer. “It’s also the action that can bring us out of our isolation and bind us together.” Can that action occur out of doors? When we visit a Great Lakes beach, hike or bike a public trail, enjoy a campfire with new neighbors in a campground, or consume cherries or other Michigan’s products at a fair or festival, perhaps we can be free from the political labels that constrain us.
Regardless of which of the Four America’s best describes your political stance, I think we all connect to nature in some way or another. We all live in a place, and in Michigan we can all find some place where nature offers relaxation, spiritual renewal, physical recreation, or simply aesthetic enjoyment.
Bi-partisan cooperation seems as rare as a Kirtland’s Warbler, but we can find conservation issues of common concern. Here are three goals that have gained wide support across the political spectrum, that all levels of government can help achieve, and also will benefit from individual actions. Progress on all three will improve the health of the Great Lakes environment and its residents, and will also ameliorate climate change.
- Protect and promote nature. We can start with the Northwoods, not only to preserve our beloved forests, but to sustain local jobs, and to take the carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere that causes global warming. Preserving habitats also ensures the continuation of Michigan’s valued hunting and fishing traditions. But we can promote nature in our cities too, with street trees, urban gardens, and engineered wetland areas to reduce run-off and protect water quality.
- Soil health. Agriculture is the number two industry in our state and we produce an impressive variety of crops. As we put into place good conservation practices in farm fields and build a local food economy, we will create jobs and improve access to healthy foods. Retaining organic material in the soil will also fight climate change and reduce polluting erosion.
- Electric vehicles as part of a low-carbon transportation system. Michigan created the gas-powered automobile economy, and can again lead the world to the next generation of transportation options. To realize this potential and protect the planet, we need a bigger infrastructure of charging systems, more alternative sources of electric energy, better public transit, and safe opportunities to bike and walk.
Of course there are important policy debates on how to best implement these goals, and lots of room for additional actions, but let’s get started. Strike up a conversation about one of these issues with someone on the other side of the political divide, and look for the common ground. If we can work together to protect the Great Lakes and the natural world around us, perhaps we can overcome some of the other divisions that threaten the way of life we all cherish in Michigan.