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Great Lakes Article:

No one said it would be cheap
Outdoors with Babe Winkelman
By Babe Winkelman
The Pilot-Independent
Posted August 23, 2005


And no one said that it would be easy to get federal and state lawmakers to fund the ambitious restoration plan, at least on the scale that conservation officials say is needed to combat what ails the vast Great Lakes ecosystem.

Allow me to explain.

In early July, federal officials unveiled a comprehensive $20 billion plan that is the best hope to date to clean up the Great Lakes, one of the world's largest freshwater ecosystems.

The draft plan, slated to be finalized later this year after a 60-day public comment period and a series of public meetings throughout the Great Lakes region, calls for preserving and restoring wetlands, improving land-use practices, stopping new invasive species and cleaning up polluted sites. The draft plan would, at least on paper, go a long way toward addressing many of the environmental needs that are inextricably linked to the fortunes of hunters and anglers, not to mention the economic interests of the storied region.

"The draft plan is a very solid vision for how we can restore the health of the Great Lakes," said Jordan Lubetkin of the National Wildlife Federation, which is part of a large coalition of conservation, government, business and agricultural groups supporting the plan. "A plan of this magnitude is going to need champions in and outside of the Great Lakes. The time to act is now. The Great Lakes desperately need the help."

But one prickly question remains unanswered: Will the federal government, as well as the eight states that border the Great Lakes, have the foresight to work together and pony up the money for the plan?
That, natural-resource officials say, is the Big Question.
If history is our guidepost, securing adequate funding for the plan will be difficult.

Over the years, several well-intentioned Great Lakes restoration plans have withered on the vine. Three years ago, for example, Christie Whitman, former administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), announced the Great Lakes Strategy, a study that brought a hodgepodge of federal and state agencies together and set goals for improving the Great Lakes environment and preventing the spread of invasive species.

The fanfare surrounding the announcement quickly gave way to reality. In short, too few dollars were approved for many of those initiatives.
The most-recent plan, the release of which has been rumored for months, was put into motion in spring 2004, when President Bush essentially ordered federal agencies to form a task force the Great Lakes Regional Collaboration to develop a blueprint for restoring and enhancing the Great Lakes.

The Collaboration, as it's called by many conservation officials, is different than other Great Lakes plans because it is more comprehensive and has the tacit support of the Bush administration a big deal. Also, the task force, which is led by the EPA, has done a good job of working with tribes, states, cities, environmental and conservation groups and other bodies that have a stake in the plan.

Any talk of funding, however, will likely be shelved until the plan is finalized, though the draft has specifics on where the money should come from. According to the draft, the five-year price tag is about $20 billion, with various federal sources chipping in $13.6 billion and state and local governments making up the difference.

There's also Legislation pending in Congress that calls for $4 to $6 billion to restore the Great Lakes. While that's a good start, more money is needed, and will be sought, conservation officials say.

The draft plan has roughly 40 separate recommendations for how to improve the environment of the Great Lakes. For example, the report urges a crackdown on ocean-going ships that dump ballast water into the lakes, a leading suspected carrier of harmful non-native exotic species, such as zebra mussels. The issue of exotic species is perhaps the most important, not to mention the most perplexing, issue facing the Great Lakes, natural resource officials say. Let's face the facts: The United States needs a common sense federal law to regulate ballast water discharges. Short of that, the Great Lakes, as well as other U.S. waterways, will continue to see the proliferation and spread of unwanted exotic species.

Other key recommendations for the plan include:

The restoration of 550,000 acres of wetlands and other important fish and wildlife habitat, as well as 1 million acres of streamside buffers to reduce erosion and improve water quality.
Upgrading and modernizing municipal sewer systems to stop the overflow of raw sewage into the Great Lakes system, which often prompts beach closures and other environmental problems.
Reducing discharges of mercury, PCBs, dioxins and other harmful chemicals into the lakes.
Accelerating the cleanup of 31 toxic pollution spots.

The new Great Lakes restoration plan is an ambitious and comprehensive attempt at cleaning up the Great Lakes ecosystem, a national treasure that deserves action and support. The groups and agencies that put the plan together deserve high praise. The plan reminds me of similar federal ecosystem-based restoration plans for the Florida Everglades and Chesapeake Bay.

Let's make sure the Great Lakes get the $20 billion they so richly deserve.

Babe Winkelman is a nationally known outdoorsman who has been teaching people to fish and hunt for 25 years. Watch his award-winning "Good Fishing" television show on WGN-TV, Fox Sports Net, The Men's Channel, Great American Country Network and The Sportsman's Channel. Visit www.winkelman.com for air times.

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