Filmmaker Ken Burns and his longtime cohort Dayton Duncan are getting a lot of buzz now over their latest blockbuster documentary, The Dust Bowl, a two-part series that examines farming practices of the early 1900s that led to what many consider America’s worst ecological catastrophe.
Three years ago, they captivated PBS viewers with a six-part documentary, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea.
Both have some lessons that can be applied to the Great Lakes region’s near-shore water quality.
First – although farming practices are radically different now – The Dust Bowl is a wake-up call for those who foolishly believe land use isn’t an important issue. It happened in another part of the country, yet the general precautionary principle about sustainability and over-stressing land applies.
That brings me to national parks. We often think of them as a Western phenomenon. But the National Parks Conservation Association recently highlighted the importance of national parks in the Great Lakes region.
The association credits national parks for protecting 620 miles of the Great Lakes region’s near-shore land and water quality. The parks, it said, help save Great Lakes shoreline, beaches, dunes, and wetlands.
Isle Royale in Lake Superior, a backpacker’s paradise, is America’s least-visited national park on purpose. In addition to being a living laboratory for the wolf-moose interaction, it offers – among other things – evidence about the global transport of mercury and other airborne pollutants. They are detected in Siskiwit Lake. Few bodies of water in the Western Hemisphere are so isolated from automobiles and industrial smokestacks.
The Perry’s Victory and International Peace Memorial on South Bass Island in Lake Erie pays homage to Oliver Hazard Perry, a young U.S. Navy commodore who earned the title of the “Hero of Lake Erie” when he led American forces to a decisive victory over the British in the Battle of Lake Erie, a turning point in the War of 1812.
Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore along Lake Michigan offers some of North America’s most spectacular sand dunes, with some of the most picturesque views of blue water and a number of rare plants.
Those three are among 13 national parks in the Great Lakes watershed, the conservation group notes, which provide a variety of biological, historical, and recreational opportunities for six million visitors a year. The group claims the Great Lakes region’s national parks generate $10 in economic impact for every dollar invested in them.
One cannot leave this issue without mentioning the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge shared between the United States and Canada, the only one in North America shared by two countries. Established only 11 years ago, the refuge consists of nearly 6,000 acres of coastal wetlands and other ecologically valuable land along 48 miles of shoreline between Detroit and Toledo.
The international refuge was not part of the group’s report, which highlighted how some $18 million of the $300 million from President Obama’s Great Lakes Restoration Initiative this year was used for cleanups and other programs to help this region’s national parks, including work along the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore.
Insiders have said that future funding for that initiative will be more difficult to come by because of the demands being placed upon the federal budget by the billions of dollars needed for Hurricane Sandy recovery efforts along the East Coast.
The association is making the case for national parks to receive additional restoration funding, though. Its report, A Sound Investment: Restoring the Great Lakes in our National Parks examines six projects underway. National parks, like other areas, need money to address anything from invasive species to erosion, and restoration money helps support dozens of jobs, the association said.
The future of Great Lakes restoration money is hard to predict, yet it should be noted that near-shore water quality is more than just what goes into the water from poor farming practices, sewage overflows, and runoff from lawns, golf courses, big parking lots and roads. It’s also a reflection of positive land uses that help keep pollution out, including those in our national parks.
Ideally, there would be more marshes and wetlands performing the function of nature’s kidneys by filtering out contaminants and assisting with flood control. But demands on waterfront property are great. Perhaps we need more of a balanced approach to help improve and protect near-shore water quality. Contributions from national parks and wildlife refuges may be overlooked, but the principles should be applied more broadly.