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Great Lakes blueprint
Nature Conservancy goes beyond 'little nature preserves' to work on saving region.
By Sue Lowe
South Bend Tribune (Indiana)
Published October 20th, 2004

The motto of The Nature Conservancy's Indiana Chapter used to be "Quietly Preserving Indiana."

And that was how the national organization and the state chapters used to go about things.

They took donations and quietly bought land, mostly wilderness land, with the goal of preserving the biodiversity of the planet.

They're still doing that -- buying only from willing sellers.

But they're not so quiet any more.

"We have evolved past setting up these little nature preserves," said Indiana State Director Mary McConnell. "Buying land is important. But you can't buy all the land. If you can influence how the land is used. ..."

"We need more awareness-raising," said John Andersen, the conservancy's Great Lakes director.

The two took the recent opening of the "Preserving Place: Reflections of Indiana" exhibit of photographs at the South Bend Regional Museum of Art as an opportunity to meet with local conservancy members.

Anderson said he and scientists employed by the conservancy are working with other scientists to determine how best to preserve the Great Lakes region.

He said that because the conservancy's approach is based on science, he has been invited to testify before Congress and to speak to and work with other groups.

They're studying not just the lakes themselves but also the land around them.

Andersen said the rivers that empty into the lakes and the land they drain are part of the Great Lakes basin.

The quality of the groundwater and the lakes and streams of St. Joseph and Elkhart counties and all of southwestern Michigan affects the quality of the water in Lake Michigan.

Andersen said there are three major threats to all of the Great Lakes area -- habitat destruction, altered hydrology and invasive species.

Habitat destruction

Habitat destruction is caused by agriculture and by housing.

Andersen said not all agricultural practices are incompatible with preserving the environment, but some are.

A conservancy staff member is working with farmers to find practices that will benefit both them and the environment.

Placing buffer strips of natural planting along streams and making sure natural drainage channels work are two practices being used.

"They're keeping soil on the land," Andersen said. "The farmer gets to keep his soil and keep his profit. Everybody wins."

The building of homes also can destroy the natural homes of native plants and animals.

"We're loving our coastlines to death," Andersen said. "There are very few wild coasts left."

The conservancy has worked with scientists throughout the Great Lakes to come up with a "conservation blueprint for the Great Lakes" that identifies more than 270 areas critical to the preservation of biodiversity within the U.S. part of the Great Lakes.

Only 5 percent of those areas are protected from destruction.

Andersen said the conservancy is working to educate people on the need to preserve those areas.

Altered hydrology

Altered hydrology is a problem many people don't think about. It means changes in the amount of water and the speed of its flow in lakes and rivers.

Andersen said the natural change in the rate of flow and depth of rivers and the Great Lakes themselves are cyclical, and some species depend on those changes.

Those natural cycles are disrupted by cities, farmers and industry removing water from underground aquifers, streams, rivers and the lakes themselves.

The leaders of the eight states and two Canadian provinces on the Great Lakes reached an agreement earlier this year, called the Great Lakes Charter Annex, on how they would like to control removal of water from the Great Lakes.

Under that agreement, anyone who removes more than 100,000 gallons of water a day must meet several criteria, including a requirement that the withdrawal not harm the Great Lakes system.

Anyone who removes more than five million gallons of water a day also must make ecological improvements to the Great Lakes system, something like wetlands creation.

"They're asking that you improve the resource (if you use enough water)," Andersen said. "This hasn't been done anywhere else in the world."

The five-million-gallon-a-day rule probably is not going to apply to any public or private entity in north central Indiana or southwestern Michigan.

The legislatures of the eight states, two provinces and the U.S. Congress must approve the agreement.

Invasive species

Every seven months, another non-native species of plant or animal is introduced into the country, according to Andersen.

He said 70 percent of them come hidden in ships that enter the Great Lakes through the St. Lawrence Seaway.

Zebra mussels are among the better known of the invasive species in the Great Lakes.

They came in ballast water, water pumped into the hold of a ship to provide stability.

They muscle out native mussels and multiply so fast they clog any inlet or outlet pipes on the Great Lakes.

In another example, it is hoped an electronic fish barrier to be installed in the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal will keep another invasive species out of the Great Lakes.

Andersen said bighead carp were brought to this country to be raised in fish farms for human consumption.

The hitch is that some escaped and started taking over the habitat of native fish in the Mississippi River.

Other work

The Great Lakes director said scientists working both for and with the conservancy are trying to identify areas that are or might become important to migrating birds.

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