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Great Lakes Article:

Great Lakes Forever Campaign Launched in U.S.
From Biodiversity Project
Environmental News Network
Published June 23, 2004

MADISON, Wis. (June 22, 2004) According to a recent report from the Environmental Projection Agency and the Government of Canada, "the Great Lakes are changing . . ." This summer, the Biodiversity Project, a Madison-based non-profit environmental education and communications group, hopes millions of Great Lakes region residents will become concerned about the future of the Lakes to change things for the better.

Following two years of public opinion research in the Great Lakes states, the Biodiversity Project, headed by executive director Jane Elder, is launching its Great Lakes Forever public education initiative this June. "This campaign is a bit different," said Elder. "We're not just trying to achieve a short-term victory. Instead, we're trying to raise the overall profile of a suite of threats to the Great Lakes. We're trying to build a deeper constituency for the lengthy effort that it will take to restore, protect and care for one of the world's largest freshwater ecosystems."

Stretching from the rustic shores of Lake Superior, through the hard-working waters of Lake Michigan, Huron, Erie and Ontario, and on to the mouth of the St. Lawrence river, the Great Lakes are one of the natural wonders of the world. The Lakes and their connecting channels contain roughly 18 percent of the world's surface freshwater, second only to the polar ice caps. More than 37 million people and a rich, unique diversity of plants and animals call the Lakes and their surrounding lands and waterways home.

The Great Lakes' natural bounty have played a defining role in the region's history and still support its primary economic activities - including agriculture, industrial manufacturing, steel production, shipping, commercial and sport fisheries, recreation and tourism. Yet this incredible natural resource is threatened. According to Jeffrey Potter, coordinator of the Great Lakes Forever program, "Pollution is closing our beaches and contaminating our fish. Invasive species and irresponsible development are threatening the survival of our native wildlife. And special interests are pushing to actually buy and sell Great Lakes water for a profit. We hope that this campaign will encourage individuals, families and communities to become more engaged in the future of their Lakes."

Components of the Great Lakes Forever campaign include magazine and radio advertisements, educational signs in the coastal state parks, Great Lakes BioBlitz events in Green Bay, Superior, and Milwaukee and eye-catching educational drink coasters to be distributed to restaurants and taverns on Wisconsin's coast. All of the materials are backed by a new Web site - www.greatlakesforever.org - featuring information about the Great Lakes ecosystem, threats to the health of the Lakes and simple solutions everyone can take to help protect the Great Lakes.

Working with more than 50 partner organizations throughout Wisconsin and the region, including state and federal agencies and local non-profit groups, Biodiversity Project identified four key issues where increased public concern could have an impact on the future of the Great Lakes: water quality, water supply, habitat protection and invasive species control.

"For decades, Great Lakes water has been contaminated by toxic pollutants such as mercury, PCBs, and agricultural pesticides," said Potter. Threats to aquatic life become threats to human health when contaminated fish end up on our tables. Mercury-contaminated fish in particular are of great concern - potentially causing birth defects, high blood pressure, infertility and even brain damage.

Bacterial contaminations of the Great Lakes, from untreated sewage dumping and livestock facilities, pose an equally dangerous threat to our health and the health of the ecosystem. Fecal coliform and e.coli bacteria from animal feces, dirty diapers, failing septic systems and municipal sewer overflows can contribute to higher levels of bacteria. The results are closed beaches and illness for boaters, swimmers and others entering or consuming water from the Great Lakes. The increased organic matter (and phosphorus from lawn and agricultural fertilizers) in the waters also contributes to algae growth, oxygen depletion in the water and threatens Lake aquatic life.

Loss of habitat is another issue where the Great Lakes Forever campaign hopes to increase public concern. "For a lot of us, it's easy to forget that the Great Lakes are more than just water," said Potter, "but protecting the land around the Lakes is crucial to protecting the Lakes themselves." He continued, "Careless development and poor land management are rapidly destroying wetlands, shorelines and other critical habitat that is vital to the health of the Great Lakes. And, when we lose this habitat, we also lose critical homes for wildlife and places for our families to go to fish, boat, hike and just plain enjoy."

Great Lakes Forever also hopes to take advantage of two policy issues up for discussion this summer, the National Aquatic Invasive Species Act (NAISA) and the Great Lakes Charter Annex. NAISA focuses federal regulations on invasive species in the Great Lakes, putting stronger restrictions on cargo ships that may be carrying exotic species from distant waters. According to Elder, "Invasive species carry both an ecological and economic burden for our communities." Sometimes called biological pollution, invasive species can cause irreversible harm to the biodiversity of the Great Lakes and related basin-lands. The loss of native biodiversity could cause regional extinction of many species that have survived in this region for millennia.

Currently, the region does not have a sufficient conservation plan and regulatory structure to protect Great Lakes surface freshwater and groundwater supplies. The Council of Great Lakes Governors (which includes the Premiers of Ontario and Quebec) have made some progress on a management plan, but the existing "charter" on water withdrawal, signed in 1985, is non-binding. Since 2001, the governors and premiers have been working on a revised Charter Annex - nicknamed Annex 2001. "The Great Lakes are a treasure and so they should be cautiously protected," noted Potter. "A strong, fully enforceable, management agreement between the federal and regional governments of the United States and Canada should be signed as soon as possible. When we conserve water for all, we protect our individual right to clean drinking water as well," he added.

The Great Lakes are not only the heart of the region's ecosystem, they are the heart of the region's economy. Tourism in the Great Lakes region generates billions of dollars each year, but contaminated fish, closed beaches and degraded scenic beauty threaten this important revenue source. In 2003, according the Lake Michigan Federation, Lake Michigan suffered its highest number of beach closings ever, a potential economic indicator for the future of Great Lakes tourism if we don't clean up our Lakes. "People are getting the message on water pollution and invasive species," said Potter, "but only greater public involvement can bring about the level of restoration the Lakes really need."

Jane Elder, who has worked on Great Lakes issues for more than twenty years, is quick to note that "the situation is not good, but it's not too late to make a difference." The Great Lakes Forever program was launched to increase public participation in the protection of the Lakes. "It's an important time for the future of the Lakes," said Potter. "There are important policy decisions being made right now, such as the Great Lakes Charter Annex on water supply and federal appropriations for Great Lakes restoration. These are initiatives where the public can have their say, letting our leaders know that our Lakes must be protected," he continued.

"The Great Lakes identify our region. We enjoy the benefits of the Lakes and so, naturally, it's our responsibility to help protect them," adds Potter. "They really are a gift of nature and they are at the heart of the ecosystem that we rely on for life. We owe it to ourselves, future generations, and even the Great Lakes themselves, to get involved in protecting this remarkable resource."

Great Lakes Forever is a program of Biodiversity Project. Biodiversity Project advocates for biodiversity by designing and implementing innovative communication strategies that build and motivate a broad constituency to protect biodiversity. A national organization based in Madison, Wisconsin, the Biodiversity Project has worked with leaders in policy, advocacy, education, science, religious and grantmaking fields since 1995. For more information, visit www.biodiversityproject.org and www.greatlakesforever.org.

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