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Protecting Michigan's Great Lakes Coast

A new Institute project

March 1, 2000 | By Hans Voss
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Two peninsulas in a sweet inland sea, Michigan lies at the center of more fresh water than any other place on earth. And while many Michiganders have learned in school about the global importance of the Great Lakes and perhaps are reminded of it when they host astonished out-of-town visitors, for most of us it is a personal relationship with the Lakes that gives them meaning.

These experiences -- whether gathering with friends to gaze at a crimson sun dipping slowly into the wet horizon, plunging into the refreshing cool waters on a sweltering summer day, or sitting in the shelter of a car, hands wrapped around a steaming coffee cup, watching with awe as the powerful winter waves crash on the beach -- make the wonder of the Great Lakes a part of our everyday lives.

Figuring out that we have a responsibility to protect what enhances our lives did not come easy. It was only in the 1970s, after the water and wildlife became tainted by pollution, that citizens and state and federal leaders fought to put into place essential environmental protections.

Laws like the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act are reducing toxic pollution and supporting a comeback of diverse animal life in the Great Lakes region. Yet pollution is increasing from erosion, mining, sprawl, and development. Last summer, Newsweek magazine called such "nonpoint" pollution the number one threat to the Great Lakes. This conclusion has gained widespread backing, and is supported by high level monitoring organizations such as the International Joint Commission and the Great Lakes Commission.

Recognizing this problem, federal, state, and local government agencies have initiated new strategies to respond to the changing threats to the Lakes. The effectiveness of these programs and ultimately the future of the Great Lakes -- the world's greatest freshwater resource -- will depend on how well communities come together to manage what takes place on the shore.

The Project
The Institute has joined a new federal project focused on safeguarding the Great Lakes coast. The "Shoreline Habitat and Species Protection Program" is coordinated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and funded by the Great Lakes Protection Fund, an endowment established in 1989 by seven Midwest states that supports collaborative action to improve the health of the Great Lakes ecosystem.

The project brings together partners representing government, academic, and nonprofit conservation groups in Michigan, Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin. Much of the emphasis is on wildlife monitoring and conservation, including protecting the piping plover, an endangered shorebird.

In Michigan, the program also actively works with landowners to establish conservation easements, and with communities to implement local ordinances that include shoreline vegetative buffers, construction setbacks, and special precautions for endangered species. The Institute will build support for shoreline protection ordinances initially in Manistee, Benzie, and Leelanau counties along Lake Michigan, then expand to communities on lakes Huron and Superior.

Hans Voss is managing director of the Michigan Land Use Institute. Reach him at hans@mlui.org

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