Friday, June 2, 2017

Where Will We Find Leadership to Save the Planet?

Governments don't lead, they follow.  This truth came to mind as I tried to look past the disappointment of President Trump's decision to reject the Paris climate agreement.  His choice to give up America's leadership toward a clean energy future will hurt not only the planet's environment, but also damage our national economy and our international respect.  But, we assign too much authority to our nominal leader if we think the President can derail the strong forces that are addressing climate change.

For at least the last two decades, and strongly for the last two years, the private market, non-governmental organizations, moral leaders, and active citizens have changed the world. They have re-oriented us away from a short-sighted, fossil-fuel economy towards a sustainable society driven more by consumer activism, regional cultures, and local and state democracy.  Many elected leaders around the globe have recognized these changes and moved forward

The ignorance of these current trends by President Trump will not stop the political and economic forces coming to the fore, just as his ignorance of basic earth science will not prevent the climate from warming and the seas from rising. It's perhaps ironic that a President supported by the Republican party believes that he has the singular power to undo or change the results of decisions by other nations, multi-national corporations, large utilities, state and local governments, social and philanthropic organizations, investors, consumers, and just plain citizens.

 The primacy of individual decisions and the power of market forces are conservative perspectives that are strangely more relevant after President Trump's unilateral action. It would be a mistake to listen too closely or take too seriously the words or actions of Donald Trump, or any President. Certainly, we should not despair because of the misguided speech and false facts he presented on the beautiful natural grounds outside the White House on a sunny day in June.

It is not helpful that the President has announced a decision to cancel our nation's support for the Paris climate agreement.  It leaves the United States out of the mainstream of the international movements that seek to shape economies, lead public and private investment, and positively engage citizens.  Leadership is important to move forward with any sort of common purpose, and the lack of it from the President will of course be deleterious to both the country and the planet.  However, leadership is coming from other nations, from governors, from CEOs, and from the Pope and other moral leaders.

Science and technology also plays a critical role in our future.  Although the President has chosen to ignore the wisdom and work of many scientists, they continue to analyze, educate, and inform our policy efforts.  With great effect, again unappreciated by the current administration, the genius of scientists and engineers has created changes in how energy is captured, generated, transmitted and used.  The profound shift from carbon-based fuels to solar and wind energy, the improvements in energy-saving design and practices, and the application of the best information sciences have allowed our economy to grow while our use of fossil fuels has diminished.  We should expect and support further advances.

Two generations participate in the Climate March, 2017
Leadership for the future will come from citizens and consumers, from investors and donors, from scientists and educators, and from those who pray and those who vote. We as individuals in the United States need to remember, and reclaim, our role as the power in our democracy. This is already happening, and as we employ our rights and responsibilities to vote, to speak out, to organize with others, and to participate in government, we need to think and act with nature in mind.  The planet sustains us with air, food, clean water, and the particular joys of special places.  We need to be stewards of this goodness.

The difficult realities of climate change are already evident, and more pain will result from the President's decision to abandon science and assert himself as a singular leader.  If we cede our power to government in this way, things will get worse. But if we maintain hope, if we have a common allegiance to truth and science, if we act locally to make our communities stronger, if we build economies that are sustainable, if we work with others, and if we become active citizens, then our government will -- as it should -- follow.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Why I Am Marching for Science

I am not one who attends marches.  I was not raised in a family of protest or social activism. Rather, my parents leaned conservative, both in their political positions as well as in their predilection to respect authority, be cautious of change, and work within the system.  I was a boy scout.

I was also raised to enjoy, and understand, nature.  We had a bird book by the breakfast table so we could identify unusual visitors to our feeder.  I took many classes at the local nature center in astronomy, flowers, birds, and, my favorite, insects.  We took family vacations to state and national parks, and we always signed up for the interpretive programs.  I grew up canoeing the Au Sable and Shiawasseee Rivers.

Being a conservative and a student of nature were never in conflict for me.  Later, as I took courses in environmental studies, I came to appreciate the long history of Republican support for nature.  As a teen, I read about Teddy Roosevelt and I met Bill Milliken; both are among my heroes.  And even as environmental policy has become more partisan in recent years, the basic facts of nature--the science--has always been a non-political touchstone.

The Nature Conservancy's work starts with science, and for that reason it has been the environmental organization that has received the longest and largest of my financial support, going back to 1983.  For over a decade now, I have also had the honor to serve as a trustee of the Michigan Chapter of The Nature Conservancy.  I have seen first hand how science grounds, guides, and challenges the conservation work of this international organization.  More than 600 actual living scientists are employed by The Nature Conservancy to understand and protect nature near and far.

For instance, The Nature Conservancy works in the Saginaw Bay watershed to help farmers put in place agricultural practices to reduce polluted run-off and make streams, and the fish who live in them, healthier.  A new computer mapping tool allows in-the-field technicians to determine the precise water quality benefits of certain agricultural practices on specific farm fields. The science is complicated, the tool is not. Crop advisors, conservation district staff, and Nature Conservancy scientists can use their tablet or laptop computer to quickly and easily give real-time advice to farmers. To see other examples of how The Nature Conservancy beneficially uses science, read this account from Hugh Possingham, their chief scientist.

The Nature Conservancy has worked hard to stay out of the political fray. Science has been their antidote to, and their defense against, partisan efforts to use conservation causes for political gains. A reliance on facts, research, and the best collective knowledge can help avoid, or at least limit, partisan arguments.  Sound science can often form the basis for common agreement among those with differing views.

Two other values of The Nature Conservancy align with their commitment to science: being non-confrontational and pragmatic. A scientific approach to conservation puts the focus on practical solutions that are most likely to achieve a conservation outcome, not necessarily the one that will gain the most political or popular praise. Likewise, confrontation, lawsuits, and public criticism are not likely to lead to the compromises often necessary to address complex environmental challenges.

Science is under attack, unfortunately, and that diminishes the ability of well-meaning conservationists to do their best, non-partisan work.  The challenges we face as communities, nations, or the world as a whole have become much more complex and difficult in the last few decades.  For instance, water pollution sources used to be easily identified by finding a pipe and then cleaning up the source.  Now, pollution flows from the land from a thousand different sources: excess fertilizer in fields, toxic run-off from parking lots, herbicides overused on a lawn. Figuring out the many sources, their relative pollution contributions, and--most importantly--how to clean them up, is now a complicated science exercise.

As scientists work to understand our modern pollution problems, sometimes the answers they come to are not certain, or are difficult to explain, or challenge long-held notions about how human society operates. And, as our environmental challenges become more severe, the responses necessary to solve them demand more from us in financial resources, changes in how we live, or completely new approaches to long-standing business practices.  Sometimes, rather than face these difficult policy or moral choices, public and private leaders have chosen to criticize or challenge the science instead.

Often a challenge to the science presented is a good thing.  It is the long-standing practice of scientists to critique each others' work, just as lawyers present the best side of their arguments before a judge.  The debate can identify mistakes, lead to new knowledge, or help create alternative solutions. However, in the last few years the science, and the scientists themselves, have come under attack.  Our best and brightest thinkers at our most prestigious institutions--universities, research centers, and organizations like The Nature Conservancy--have had their hard-earned knowledge ignored, dismissed, or trashed.  Even worse, the commitment, honesty, and good character of the scientists I know have been criticized.

I am joining the Science March in my state Capitol because I want to re-establish science as the bedrock of non-political, bi-partisan conservation efforts.  Sadly, many of the special interests that feel threatened by our difficult environmental challenges have aligned themselves with the Republican party, and the attacks the have fomented from a few Republican politicians pain me. Democrats have their own biases and flaws, but the abandonment of science by the majority party leaves me little option but to stand up in the public square and speak up for science-based conservation.

Some will criticize scientists for engaging in public speech this way, and a few years ago I would have agreed with them.  However, science has been too quiet, or ineffective in communicating through traditional means, or purposefully ignored.  A public protest should not be the only way science seeks to re-establish its voice, but it is a way to start.  The issues we face are too serious for science to be silent.

So, I will be there on Earth Day, an event that began as a "teach-in" in 1970, doing what I can to speak up for science, to provide testimony for the conservation solutions we gain from science, and to support the many smart and committed men and women who use science to tackle the serious environmental problems that threaten the ecosystems that sustain us.

I invite you too to stand for Nature and make the pledge to support science.

The March for Science in Lansing is at the State Capitol from 1 to 4 p.m. on Saturday April 22

To learn more about the March for Science in Washington DC and/or find a March near you go to

Friday, March 17, 2017

Conservation Success Stories

I have taken up a new, positive social media practice and every Friday I am posting a conservation success story on my Facebook page.  Unfortunately, environmental protection has come under attack the last few years.  These stories are a reminder of what can be accomplished when creative and committed people apply on science, economics, and sound policy to conserve the natural world.

These are links to the success stories I have highlighted this year.

December 8
 Saginaw Bay Watershed Initiative Network (WIN). This coalition of stakeholders work collaboratively to protect the environment of Michigan's largest watershed and build sustainable communities. I am proud that the Cook Family Foundation is a long time member of the funders group that supports this effort.

December 1
 Federal Duck Stamp. It is required of all waterfowl hunters, but anyone can buy the stamp, and the revenues go to protect wetlands, purchase easements, and expand National Wildlife Refuges. If just 10 percent of bird watchers would buy the $25 Federal Duck Stamp, an estimated $125 million per year would be raised for wetlands. Learn more, and buy a stamp online here

November 24 #OptOutside for this week's Conservation Success Story. Three year's ago, outdoor retailer REI closed its stores on Black Friday and encouraged all of us to take time to get outside. In Michigan, the weather will be fine and State Parks have no admission fee. Great day to get out with family for a hike, maybe even a bike; in Shiawassee County, try a walk on the James Miner Walkway or a trip to DeVries Nature Conservancy.…/5-ways-optoutside-and…/885432001/

November 17  The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust was created by the widow of the founding Warden of Tsavo East National Park in Kenya. They work to fight elephant poaching and help rehabilitate injured and orphaned wildlife. Follow them on Facebook or Instagram for warm stories, videos, and photos. Thank you Bailey for first telling me this story and Abbie for championing elephants. More here

November 10 Environmentalists have a reputation for saying "No" but this week's conservation success story is about saying 'Yes" to infill, higher density development. My planning career began as a professional YIMBY in the Bay Area

November 3 Green infrastructure is being used to fight urban runoff pollution, create jobs, and help rebuild Detroit, Washington DC, and other cities. Read this piece from Mark Tercek on the triple win of this approach.…/why-cities-are-investing-in-natu…/…

October 26 Green infrastructure in Detroit See a slideshow about the why and what of green infrastructure in Detroit. Many of the photos are from Owosso's very own Michael David-Lorne Jordan

October 19 Buffalo. This week's Conservation Success Story comes from, yes, Buffalo. I spent some time there this week and was impressed by how this declining industrial city has turned itself around by cleaning up a very polluted river, increasing access to Lake Erie, using green infrastructure, and promoting clean energy. One key to this has been a strong local environmental organization, the Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper. Read their Five Guiding Principles of building a blue economy

October 12  OktoberForest is this week's conservation success story. “Water is a critical ingredient in beer production. Without quality water, our beer will not taste great" says Tyler Glaze of Short's Brewing, one of many beer providers teaming up with The Nature Conservancy to highlight the connection between healthy forests and clean water.

October 5    Burmese Star Tortoise.  In Myanmar the attractive Burmese Star Tortoise almost became extinct due to the illegal wildlife trade. A rescue effort, captive breeding, and new wildlife sanctuaries have brought this creature back, and in a time and place where this must not have been an easy task.

September 29  Environmental education has a local champion. in Flint, MI.  I have had the good fortune to meet Jef Johnson who has taken an upbeat, creative approach to teaching conservation to young people.  This powerful video tells his story

September 22.  Live Waste Free. This week's Conservation Success story is all the people who take the extra effort to avoid using plastic bags, minimize the amount of waste they produce, and otherwise reduce, reuse, or recycle. I posted a video on Wednesday that explains how this really can make a difference. It featured a young lady that lives a zero waste lifestyle; here is her blog full of tips and videos We all don't have to be that extreme, but as more of us take more small steps we can fight climate change. 

September 15 Michigamme Highlands. In Michigan's UP The Nature Conservancy has created a magnificent 6,100 acre forest reserve. This action protects an iconic landscape with 26 lakes, headwaters, and stretch of the North Country Trail. The land will continue to be sustainably logged and thus provide both economic and environmental benefits. Read more here…/…/newsroom/michigamme-highlands.xml

September 8 NOAA This week's Conservation Success Story is about the invaluable science done by the people that work at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the portion of the federal government that includes the National Weather Service. We recognize them now for their work on tracking, studying, and sharing information about hurricanes, but they also protect our oceans, coasts (including the Great Lakes) and the life that thrives there. Without the data and knowledge they compile, we could not do effective conservation. Read this story about the 100 year history of the most dedicated people of NOAA, including those who fly into hurricanes…/noaa-corps-a-small-group…/…

September 1 Green Infrastructure is the use of landscape-aware planning to manage the flow of water, control urban runoff, and reduce flooding. As we have seen in Houston, we need to plan for more rain and extreme weather. Read more and see 30 examples of naturally resilient communities.…/a-guidebook-for-city-plan…/522396/

August 25 Chicago Restoration a short bike ride from the Loop in downtown Chicago is Northerly Island, a restoration site with prairie grasses, a coastal wetland, and lots of wildlife. Such urban places of beauty support both humans and the natural world. Over 250 species of birds have been sighted here.…/northerly-island-bird-paradise-me…

August 18 Schoolgirls Glen  Today's conservation success story comes from Ann Arbor, where the growth of the University imperiled a place of beauty and where the skill and concern of several of its staff taught us much about stormwater, restoration and the power of nature. We make mistakes, but we can make amends.

August 11 The Cook Family Foundation  has worked  with many partners to help address run-off pollution in the Shiawassee River watershed and Saginaw Bay.…/

August 4
 Electronic Vehicles.  In July, the sale of gas-powered cars were down 7%, the sale of EVs were up 20%, the 22 consecutive month of increased sales. EVs, by using more efficient electrical power, emit much less pollution and have a much smaller carbon footprint. We love our Chevy Volt, and the rest of the world has already been catching on to EVs.…/…

July 21
 River Up!  The Huron River Watershed Council has been working to restore and promote water and recreation as a community development tool. Impressive

July 14
 Friends of the Shiawassee River. The community comes together to care for its natural resource.  For more than 20 years, the Owosso Rotary Club has been one of several organizations, along with hundreds of people, who volunteered and contributed to make the Friends of the Shiawassee River a success. Read more about this partnership here

July 7  Community Supported Agriculture (CSA)  - there are now over 12,000 CSAs in the US. They provide healthy food grown in a way that honors the environment and supports the local community. My CSA is from Owosso Organics   You can read more about CSA's, how they work, and the many benefits here…/how_community_suppo…/2017-06-25-443

June 23  The Nature Conservancy-  It's appropriate that this week's Conservation Success Story is the Nature Conservancy, the 65 year old environmental organization I joined in 1983, walked across the UP in 2006 to raise money for, and yesterday became the chair of the council of the many advisory boards that guide and support its work. If you don't already support this group, you should learn more about its work. Visit their website google them or ask me about it. I've included the Nature Conservancy in my estate plans.

June 16 Get Outdoors. This week's conservation success story is right outside your door. Your tree-lined neighborhood street, local park, public pathway, or accessible nature preserve is a resource not only for the environment, but also for the maintenance of your own physical and mental health.  Read more here. 

June 10 Heart of the Lakes. Meet Maurice. Hailing from Saginaw, MI he spends his time on the waters off Tawas Point. Moe doesn’t consider himself an environmentalist, but he tries to teach others the necessity of being conscious of their environment.  Watch the video

June 2 Global Leadership This week's conservation success story takes notes of the progress made in the last two decades to create a sustainable planet. Yesterday, Donald Trump reminded me that governments don't lead, they follow. Read my thoughts 

May 26 Lake Superior This week's conservation success story is Lake Superior, whose substantial presence stands as an assurance that "humans haven’t yet tamed or destroyed everything wild." This long read from Outside magazine presents several samples of what makes this Great Lake special. The article only briefly touches on the many local, state, national, and International efforts that work to protect Lake Superior, but they are all critical to the health and future of our Greatest Lake. Read and enjoy

May 19 Kirtland's Warbler This week's conservation success story is Michigan's own rare songbird, which has been brought back from extinction by the efforts of dedicated, smart scientists, government wildlife officials, and lots of volunteers and advocates. Check out the extraordinary video in this story that tracks their migration route to and from the Bahamas.

May 12 The DeVries Nature Conservancy was established over a decade ago as the legacy of Jack and Fran DeVries. The 135 acres along the Shiawassee River provide over 4 miles of trail and lots of ready opportunity for the exploration of nature. Get outside and take in wildflowers, abundant birds, and the children's playscape.  See a schedule of events and learn more here

May 5 This week's conservation success story comes from the Great Lakes of Africa, where scientists from Michigan are--this week--working with colleagues from several nations to share their knowledge to help protect natural resources while providing development opportunities. Read more about The Great Lakes of Africa conference  

For several years, The Nature Conservancy has been working in several villages on the shores of Lake Tanganyika

April 29 A bi-partisan initiative to fight climate change is this week's conservation success story. Thirty-four members of congress (17 Rep. and 17 Dem.) have formed the Climate Solutions Caucus, another sign of the diverse, common sense responses to climate change supported by most Americans. I am looking forward to a Michigan legislator joining this group soon. Read more here

April 22 "Why I Am Marching for Science" my thoughts and blogpost on the March for Science and The Nature Conservancy

April 14 This week's success story highlights the work of the the US Geological Survey, one of several government science agencies that provides the knowledge and research necessary for conservation success. Among other important tasks, the USGS manages gauging stations that provide data on stream flow; in the case of the Shiawassee River they have collected data for 86 years at Owosso.  John Wesley Powell, second director of USGS, first explored the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon.…/United_States_Geological_Survey

April 7 Lake Onondaga teaches us much about clean water.  Fifty years ago, many bodies of water, including the Shiawassee were quite polluted.  The successful efforts to restore lakes and rivers has been long and expensive; we cannot afford to go backward.

March 31 The Final Floor highlights sustainable forestry in Michigan's Upper Peninsula.  Wood harvested in The Nature Conservancy's Two-Hearted Forest Reserve was used to construct the basketball floor used in this year's Final Four NCAA championship game.  Read more here. 

March 24 Sandhill Cranes have made an amazing comeback in Michigan and the rest of the Midwest thanks to restrictions on hunting and habitat preservation.  Read more here. 

March 17 The Clean Air Act has been one of our nation's most significant conservation success stories.  The changes in automobile technology and the fuel economy standards have not only been essential in improving public health, they have also reduced carbon emissions and spurred engineering advances in Michigan's automobile industry.   Mark Tercek has a clear and strong summary.

March 10 The Big Two Hearted River  in Michigan's UP has been improved thanks to the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.  Many bridges, culverts, and other road-stream crossings throughout the watershed were upgraded to reduce erosion and facilitate fish passage.  Read more here

March 3  "Piper" is the short animated movie that won an Oscar, and appropriate for this World Wildlife Day.   It features sanderlings, the small sandpipers found on both coasts.  Read an account here of how Pixar folks became birdwatchers to make the movie; a short clip of the movie is included.

February 24  "The Accidentals," a relatively new band formed by three young people from Traverse City, performs a benefit concert on March 25 in Owosso.  They have had a big hit with their song "Michigan and Again." Read an interview here about their environmental roots and connection to the Great Lakes.

February 17   The Sage Grouse is the largest grouse in North America.  It is endangered, but not officially so.  Rather, there is a bold and comprehensive effort underway to protect its habitat in the western US.  This protects other plants and animals and the cowboy (and cowgirl) way of life. The Endangered Species Act spurred this effort, but the partnership of government agencies with local people helps ensure success.  Read more, and find many links, here.   Read here to learn "Five Things You Need to Know About the Greater Sage Grouse and the Endangered Species Act."

February 10  Ocmulgee National Monument in Macon, Georgia was unknown to me until a birding trip I made there with an old friend recently.  It has everything: diverse habitats, interesting cultural history, and good birding.  There's now a move to make it a National Park, something the local community strongly supports because it would boost the local economy.  Read more here.

February 3 The Saginaw Bay RCPP effort of the Nature Conservancy is an innovative effort to use science and work with farmers, crop advisers, and others to reduce polluted runoff.  Read more and watch a video here.

January 27 Lake Erie Watersnake is a conservation success story because one person learned a lot of natural history (i.e. science) and then became inspired to take action.  Read more here.

January 20  Theodore Roosevelt is a conservation success story from history. Teddy was raised as a birdwatcher and naturalist, was redeemed from depression by a stint on a ranch in North Dakota (now a national park that bears his name), and, as President, passed the law to establish National Monuments, set aside national bird sanctuaries and created the US Forest Service.  Read some his still timely thoughts about conservation here.

January 13   Lake Ontario, the last (or first) of the Great Lakes is the site of a conservation success. A new management plan based on natural systems will restore 64,000 acres of wetlands and improve the health of the lake.  This, like many conservation efforts, requires good science and a solid governmental agency to balance both environmental and economic needs.  Read more here.

January 6  You can be a conservation success story.  Don't despair, take action, says Jon Foley, the smart engaging director of the California Academy of Sciences.  He offers easy, straightforward device on what you can do to meet global challenges.  Read more, and see some nice photos, here.

December 30  The Endangered Species Act was signed into law this week 10 years ago.  Here are 10 conservation success stories of animals saved by this federal legislation.

December 23   President Obama carried through on the bi-partisan tradition of all the Presidents back to Teddy Roosevelt.  All of them, Republican and Democrat have established national parks and national monuments.  Read more and watch a video here that recaps President Obama's legacy.

December 16  Sparks of Hope, 2016  There were many conservation success stories last year.  Read here about 12 signs of progress as reported by The Nature Conservancy.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Obama's Final Words on Climate Change

“Without some common baseline of facts; without a willingness to admit new information, and concede that your opponent is making a fair point, and that science and reason matter, we’ll keep talking past each other, making common ground and compromise impossible. ...

Take the challenge of climate change. In just eight years, we’ve halved our dependence on foreign oil, doubled our renewable energy, and led the world to an agreement that has the promise to save this planet. But without bolder action, our children won’t have time to debate the existence of climate change; they’ll be busy dealing with its effects: environmental disasters, economic disruptions, and waves of climate refugees seeking sanctuary.

Now, we can and should argue about the best approach to the problem. But to simply deny the problem not only betrays future generations; it betrays the essential spirit of innovation and practical problem-solving that guided our Founders.”

-- President Barack Obama, January 10, 2017 

Thursday, October 6, 2016

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.