Strain the Great Lakes alphabet soup

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Gary Wilson

Gary Wilson


If there has been one constant in my 10 years of covering Great Lakes issues it’s our love affair with process and bureaucracy.

We have a multitude of agencies, councils, commissions, coalitions, committees, initiatives and advisory boards. I can quickly name 10 and more are on the way.

The newly formed Council of the Great Lakes Region had its launch conference in Cleveland this week and the members of a new Great Lakes restoration advisory board were announced in March.

We must think more cooks in the kitchen make a better stew.


The EPA’s new Great Lakes Advisory Board — GLAB (why not, there’s already an advisory committee called a GLEC) — consists of 18 members. I was surprised at the number. When the concept of the board was announced I wrote here that it wasn’t necessary. Most of what needs to be done with Great Lakes restoration is known and all it takes is political will and some money — mostly the former — to make progress. But a board was going to happen over my concerns anyway so I argued for a small entity consisting of 6-8 members. No luck.

There are a lot of long-time Great Lakes establishment names on the board — people who have worked on the issues for years.

It includes David Ullrich representing the cities, Molly Flanagan from the Joyce Foundation (key funding source for many on the board), Jennifer Hill representing environmental groups and former Michigan state legislator Patricia Birkholz. They are experienced and knowledgeable advocates who have made contributions over the years.

I’m slightly encouraged to see a few new names like Naomi Davis of Blacks in Green chicagoviewand Jim Wagner from Trenton, Mich. They aren’t the usual suspects.

Great Lakes advocacy work has been Chicago and Ann Arbor/Michigan-centric, the traditional base of the Great Lakes establishment and that will continue.

But the essence of the advisory board is that it represents the old way of doing things — committees, boards, councils, initiatives, etc.  It’s hard to prepare for the future using processes and structures rooted in the past.

In its announcement press release, the EPA said that the White House’s Interagency Task Force “is in the process of scheduling next steps” for the board. There you go — an 11-member federal agency task force scheduling an 18 member advisory board.

Does that make sense coming from the executive branch of the federal government that says it wants to streamline?

And what is there for this board to do that federal Great Lakes executives couldn’t do by themselves?

The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative has distilled its work to essentially three areas:

  • Restoration of the toxic legacy sites known as Areas of Concern.  Restoring those sites is good work that is long overdue and progress is being made.
  • Stopping the advance of Asian carp — someone had to fund the carp fight and that’s been the restoration initiative. It wasn’t part of its original mission.
  • Trying to control algae blooms, especially in Lake Erie. But controlling algae is a job that’s poorly suited for restoration. The restoration initiative’s action plan is about spending money and getting results. The algae issue isn’t a money problem. Instead it’s about having the political will to regulate agricultural runoff.

Learn from other legacy entities

It’s time to step back and reassess.

I take my cue from Detroit Public Television MiWeek contributors Stephen Henderson of the Detroit Free Press and Nolan Finley of the Detroit News. Both recently talked about the need for state, county and city governments to examine how they are structured and how they relate to each other. Population declines and shifts and economic uncertainty have rendered some current governance structures ineffective.

There are efficiencies to be gained in terms of economic benefit and service improvements by designing a new model of regional governance, Henderson and Finley said. They acknowledged that officials have to be willing to let go of the current non-functional structure.

Their point could apply to Great Lakes management.

Why not put all of the existing agencies, councils, advisory boards, commissions, initiatives and coalitions on the sidelines and start with a clean sheet of paper.

In corporate parlance it’s a reorganization which happens periodically as a company adapts to changing conditions.  General Motors had to shed its beloved Pontiac and Oldsmobile brands in order to survive. Painfully, dealers had to be cut. Not every town needed a GM dealer.

Here’s my recommendation.

Pull the plug on the Great Lakes Advisory Board before it starts. A simple things have changed press release will suffice especially since incoming EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy has no ownership of the GLAB. Better now than after it starts to meet.

Start over.

Pull together a half-dozen savvy Great Lakes minds including a few with a memory of the past but who don’t cling to it. They don’t have to have a long list of credentials. Remember both Steven Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg — Apple and Facebook respectively–dropped out of college.

Importantly, include outsiders who have no stake in the outcome. None of them should be in a position to need or want federal money. That helps guarantee objectivity. Charge them with designing the next generation of Great Lakes management.

They should emphasize results and efficiency over process, redundancy and bureaucracy.

They need to focus on a Great Lakes management model for the next 30 years.

Because our current structure is about the last 30.

Editor’s note: Related commentary with different view in April 12


7 thoughts on “Strain the Great Lakes alphabet soup

  1. You are ridiculous Gary. I’m so sick of seeing this crap from you. Real progress won’t be made when we have less committees, but rather when real action is taken.

    Why not focus on better managing the lakes by using levers we have in place already? It’s the damn special interest groups like charter salmon fisherman that keep any real progress from happening. For example – why were salmon introduced into the Great Lakes? To get rid of alewife right? What are managers now doing? Managing salmon populations so that alweife won’t be eliminated. Yup, instead of managing for “native species” like lake trout, which may never fully recover unless alewife are gone, we manage for short term, special interests. The data is there. Yet in the meantime, lake trout suffer, perch suffer, walleye suffer, deepwater sculpin suffer, and other native Great Lakes fishes suffer from improper management that has sold out to special interest groups. In the end, we suffer because it’s our friggin’ tax dollars that write the paychecks for these jerks to keep thier jobs by mis-managing our lakes and fisheries.

    The levers are there to eliminate alewife, and thus invest in our future as stakeholders in the Great Lakes, yet TPTB prevent real progress. I’ve seen it with my own eyes. A small collective of powerful old timers in state and federal agencies that make unilateral decisions. What we need is long term management strategies not this short sighted management approach that appeases special interests.

    You want to pick on someone, or certain groups Gary, how about the entire Wisconsin DNR – they fully support managing for non-native and invasive species in Lake Michigan in this way and in just the last year dramatically reduced salmon stocking for fear that they actually would eat all of, and eliminate the alewife. That’s what they were brought here to do you morons! Why not just introduce other non-natives, I mean there are freshwater sharks out there right? We could have a good fishery that would bring dollars for those right? Salmon are a boom and bust fish even in their natural habitats, what the hell makes anyone think they aren’t as much, or even worse in this regard in the Great Lakes? People come to visit and want to fish, lets invest in long term sustainable fisheries, not boom and bust crap species like salmon. If we were managing long term, we would be stocking as many salmon as possible so we actually did eliminate the alewife, not trying to protect one of the worst invasive species we have EVER had in the Great Lakes.

    Don’t support short-sighted management strategies or illogical fisheries management approaches – maybe we need new agencies that are not engrained with these jerks that sell out to special interests and whom are so old that they don’t even know and understand the most recent science – these old timers are living in the past, and managing the lakes as if it were still the past. The new organizations and such, in my opiion, arise in part because there is no way around these engrained managers and their set ways – good luck trying to battle any of them from within their agencies – they will crucify you and it’s considered as professional suicide to agaisnt these guys.

    If anyone wants, see this article in the November 2012 American Fisheries Society Magazine by John Dettmers et al. at The Great Lakes Fishery Commission on the matter:
    “Management of Alewife Using Pacific Salmon in the Great Lakes: Whether to Manage for Economics or the Ecosystem?”
    The link to the page with the magzines is here.

    It’s clear to me Gary, the problem is not with new organizations and such trying to help the Great Lakes, it’s with these uber-powerful old-timers in agencies that hold the real power to make the real decisions. Until we have an impact there, none of what you have written matters because these managers focus on the short-term, boosting thier resume and reputations, and appeasing special interest groups, not on suustainable long term management. If they were focused on long term management they would be stocking even more salmon to get rid of the alewife, not stocking less. So don’t blame the new guys Gary, blame the old-timers – maybe in light of your article we whould get rid of those first, and give a chance for the new agencies to make a real impact.

    A concerned scientist and Great Lakes stakeholder…….

  2. Buffalo News columnist advocates for a new approach for protecting the Great Lakes.

    “The National Wildlife Federation keeps plugging for lakes cleanup funding. But it is working off an old system of binational treaties and interstate compacts that have holes in them as large as Asia’s Aral Sea. Once the world’s fourth-largest lake, it has lost 80 percent of its volume.”

    “The Council of Canadians is proposing that the Great Lakes system, its tributaries and aquifers and the St. Lawrence basin be considered an endangered binational “Commons” owned by everybody, certainly not by corporate or government power structures, which have failed to save the lakes from new threats.”

    Full commentary here.

    Gary Wilson

  3. The Lake Michigan committee is supposed to be THE committee, many good plans, “if there is a conflict native fish should come first” Should! I agree, lets do that. However thier main plan shows alewives dominant, all conflict, but should is the operative word.

  4. Good job Gary, “advisory” is the operative word in this problem. Perfectly legal to ignore any “advice” from these committees. Basic biology or science tells us what we need to do. Many examples of what works and what doesn’t or isn’t, are also ignored. We are told what we can see with our own eyes isn’t what we see, but for a couple million bucks, we’ll look into that. Michigan DNR says “everything has to be science based” but now has added, cultural, social, and economic considerations in “the plan”. So much for science. I only care about what the problems opinion is. We all need to be on the same page, what’s best for the lakes comes first, we work around that. But nope nature has to work around us, and that never works, the results are in the lake. Having dealt with a lot of these committees, it looks like nothing will be done until Asian Carp start smacking people off the piers, or land in traffic on the briges, like alewives dying on the beach. Why do we always have to wait until it gets really bad for anything? It’s really bad now.

  5. Thom Cmar is a staff attorney at Earth Justice who teaches a course titled “Great Lakes Environmental Law and Policy” at Northwestern.

    The course description is below and it touches on many of the points I raised in my commentary.

    Gary Wilson

    Great Lakes Environmental Law and Policy
    The Great Lakes are a vast and unique freshwater ecosystem– representing 95 percent of the standing freshwater in the United States and 20 percent of the world’s total–that spans two countries, eight states, and two Canadian provinces. The Great Lakes Basin is home to a diverse community of native plant and animal species, and a vital human community that relies on the Great Lakes ecosystem for drinking water, food, recreation, commerce, and economic development.

    Scientists and policymakers have long argued that the key to effective governance of the Great Lakes is to approach the Basin as a single, unified ecosystem. The ecosystem approach to the Great Lakes has been embraced in principle, but often not in fact. Governance of the Great Lakes is divided among discrete political jurisdictions and institutions. The approach of targeting specific problems with specific dedicated programs has had some significant successes, but the multiplicity of efforts and institutions is frequently redundant, fragmentary, and sometimes contradictory. Despite the continuing proliferation of local, state, federal, regional, binational, and non-governmental entities all playing a role in Great Lakes governance, a number of serious longstanding environmental problems remain inadequately addressed, including the introduction and spread of invasive species, a legacy of toxic industrial pollution, and disputes over access to and stewardship of Great Lakes water.

    As issues of progressively greater scientific and legal complexity emerge in the Great Lakes, the critical question to be addressed is how the Great Lakes community, and its institutions that have been responsible for past successes, can provide a framework for new approaches and policies to solve both lingering and emergent environmental problems.

  6. Straining the Great Lakes alphabet soup should start by eliminating the 900-1200 chemical soups that Michigan DEQ Hal Fitch supports dumping into the Great Lakes with his political Republican support for the fracking wells in Michigan.

  7. I know–they could start a committee to review which agencies, councils, advisory boards and commissions should be eliminated!

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