Memo to Great Lakes advocates: Stop fighting the last war

Print More
Gary Wilson

Gary Wilson


Great Lakes advocates make their annual trip to Washington next week to lobby the federal government to support Great Lakes restoration.

It’s a familiar trek.

Advocates strategize and listen to short speeches by members of the Great Lakes congressional delegation who praise their efforts and tell them about budget realities. Toss in a cocktail party, a few comments by an executive branch staffer then it’s off to congressional offices to make their pitch for money.

It has historically been good work and I’m sure years ago it contributed to what is now the federally funded Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.

But it’s also an example of the generals who fight the last war. A strategy that worked in the past isn’t necessarily the right one for the future.

Here’s a relevant example.

Last week I attended a seminar at the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics where former high-level campaign executives for President Barack Obama explained their strategy for winning two presidential elections. Ones they weren’t supposed to win. In both cases they would have failed if they had followed the safe, tried and true path — fought the last war.

To win, they had to challenge accepted campaign norms and be willing to take smarter risks than their deeper-pocketed establishment opponents.

Great Lakes advocates could learn from their example.

Budget battles are no longer an annual event in Washington. They’re part of the daily fabric in a dysfunctional federal government. And whatever happens with skirmishes like the fiscal cliff and sequestration, money for the Great Lakes is not going to increase. In recent budgets $300 million seems to be codified as the working number.chicagoview

Advocates should still make their case for funding, it’s necessary. But federal money won’t protect the Great Lakes.

If they want to be really productive next week, they should work to refocus the initiative so it isn’t a mile wide and an inch deep. They could lobby to keep an expenditure like $600,000 for the Chicago Botanic Gardens under the guise of restoring the Great Lakes from happening again.

Similarly, there are better uses for the nearly $3 million that the Army Corps of Engineers will spend to turn Chicago’s Northerly Island into an eco-tourist destination. Imagine what Michigan advocates for the battered Rouge River could do with that money. Now that would be a really good use of federal dollars.

Wetland irony: Destroying while restoring

While advocates turn their attention to Washington, there is opportunity to make a real impact by focusing on what is happening in the states:

  • Wisconsin is on the cusp of passing a really bad mining bill that threatens Lake Superior. High-quality wetlands will be destroyed which is ironic because wetland restoration is a priority for the advocates going to Washington. What if a coalition of Great Lakes activists had made the battle over that mining proposal a regional one versus letting it play out only in Madison? Could there have been a better outcome?
  • There is a move afoot to significantly increase crude oil shipments on the Great Lakes from Duluth. Other than oil companies, who thinks that’s a good idea? A regional campaign may be able to head that off before it gains momentum. Preventing problems before they happen is the most cost-effective way to protect the Great Lakes.
  • Groundwater is under attack in Michigan where more than 1,000 new high-impact wells have been dug and in Ohio which has the most liberal water withdrawal laws in the region. Toss in massive withdrawals for fracking and the current drought and protecting groundwater could become the most significant need for regional Great Lakes action.

Federal money won’t do anything to protect the Great Lakes from mining threats, risky oil shipping ventures and massive groundwater takings. In fact, continued hyper-focus on it detracts from the work
that needs to be done on the ground in the states.

The same Great Lakes advocates and coalitions that helped pass the Great Lakes Compact and secure federal money for restoration have the ability to change the discussion at the state level.

But first they have to be willing to recognize the problem. They have to be willing to take a risk and deviate from a narrow, money-focused strategy (the last war).

That may require a direct and honest discussion with their funding sources and the courage to deviate from consultants’ advice to stay on message at all costs.

Which takes me back to the Obama campaign seminar.

A young tech executive on the panel told the story of needing $500,000 for some tech wizardry that could help the campaign get at voters who could truly be persuaded. He decided to go for it and made his pitch. The traditional script would have generated a no from his boss. But the campaign didn’t have the luxury of playing it safe — fighting the last war. They knew that was the path to defeat. The money
was approved and critical voters were reached.

The Great Lakes will always need advocates in Washington and this isn’t a call to abandon a D.C. presence. But current and future needs are at the state level. That’s where they can have the biggest impact.

State houses are where those folks trekking to Washington next week need to be.


7 thoughts on “Memo to Great Lakes advocates: Stop fighting the last war

  1. Chris – I would suggest establishing a waterkeeper program for Lake Superior again. There was one sone years back but the leader got bunred out. You and others would have the opportunity to gather people who care about the lake and want to help the waters and work with other groups. For Lake Superior to be defended, it needs some passionate voices who want fishable, swimmable drinkable voices.
    Would be glad to discuss further –

  2. Hello Chris,

    Here are some organizations involved in Great Lakes issues and I’d encourage you to share your concerns with them.

    Environmental groups
    The Healing Our Waters Coalition.
    Alliance for the Great Lakes.
    Natural Resources Defense Council (Chicago) I know they’re interested in the oil shipping issue.

    Quasi-governmental organizations.
    Great Lakes Commission. (Governors)
    International Joint Commission. (Representing the U.S. and Canada)

    Both are engaged in Great Lakes issues.

    I hope this helps.

    Gary Wilson

  3. I am not in any environmental movement, just a powerless citizen EXTREMELY upset about crude oil going onto Lake Superior. It is one of the most important resources in the midwest, with pristine beauty that deserves our utmost respect and care. It is not just a tourist spot that makes money, it is a place that has spirituality for its magic that goes beyond money. Oil spills are too common and the result is always a catastrophe. But money always seems to win over the risk-averse mindset, and I see this is heading on a fast-track to a heart-breaking disaster.

    Why isn’t this issue gaining more traction, in BOTH the environmental movements and amongst the general citizenry and fans of Lake Superior vacationing?

    What can we do other than write a meaningless comment on the internet? I do not know, but I wish there was an organizing movement to combat this very bad business decision.

  4. What good is being politically correct if we lose the lakes? But don’t worry, we’re running out of countries we can borrow money from, so it wont matter what the plan is. No money, no plan.

  5. Gary mentioned a couple of programs which rightly should have been cut from the Great Lakes Initiative, but I would proffer that a lot of the money spent on the Rouge River should have been better spent, too. Far too much money has gone towards expensive construction projects (e.g. sewers and retention basins) while identified needs such as protecting and restoring wetlands and headwater resources went completely unfunded. Priorities for spending seemed to be purely contractor-driven. More beneficial and cost-effective projects went unfunded primarily because they wouldn’t generate extensive political contributions–which serve as the true grease in getting federal dollars.

  6. Michigan’s groundwater is indeed under attack from fracking. We, the grassroots, have a solution to that: banning fracking by ballot initiative. The Committee to Ban Fracking in Michigan announces our campaign and new website: This is an all-volunteer, on-the-ground movement to protect Michigan’s water.

    Please join us.

    LuAnne Kozma
    Campaign Director
    Committee to Ban Fracking in Michigan

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.