Bipartisan lawmakers seek to extend Great Lakes protection

Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore. Image: Devon Sweeney

Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore. Image: Devon Sweeney

By Logan Clark

A unique bipartisan effort may continue support for Great Lakes stewardship after President Barack Obama leaves office.

Launched by the Obama administration in 2010, the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative was established to protect and improve the environmental quality of the lakes. As it is only funded through 2015, a group of 14 Republicans and 12 Democrats in Congress are supporting a bill by U.S. Rep. Dave Joyce, R-Ohio, to allocate an annual $300 million to the initiative through 2020.

The money is distributed to federal agencies that aim to fix significant ecosystem problems in the Great Lakes.

The Initiative’s five focuses are toxic substances and Areas of Concern, invasive species, nearshore health and nonpoint source pollution, habitat and wildlife protection and restoration, accountability-education-monitoring-evaluation-communication and partnerships.

The bill made it through the House of Representatives last year, but it will have to make it through the newly elected House and Senate if it is going to pass this year.

“We are hopeful that it will make a swift transition out of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and through the House and Senate,” said Kevin Benacci, communications director for Joyce.

The bill isn’t scheduled for a vote soon, but is facing funding challenges due to Obama recommending a $50 million cut to the program in his Feb. 2 budget announcement.

“The good news is that the president’s budget is a starting point–not an end–to federal appropriations,” said Jordan Lubetkin, a spokesman on Great Lakes issues from the National Wildlife Federation in Ann Arbor.

“We are confident U.S. House and Senate supporters of the Great Lakes will restore funding to $300 million,” Lubetkin said. “Last year, the president recommended cutting the program and Congress rebuffed those cuts and appropriated $300 million in the current budget.”

Lubetkin said he is unaware of opposition to the bill and that it “has broad regional support from conservation groups, industry, chambers of commerce and local, state and tribal governments.”

Great Lakes protection has a history of bipartisan cooperation demonstrated by the Great Lakes Task Force. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich. recently was elected to co-chair the group with Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Illinois. Founded in the mid-80s, the task force is a bipartisan group of senators from states bordering the lakes.

The League of Conservation Voters, which evaluates lawmakers’ environmental voting records, gave Stabenow a voting score of 86 out of 100 and Kirk a 61.

Kirk’s score has the potential to go up. In early January, he was one of 15 senate Republicans voting for a resolution stating that humans contribute significantly to climate change.

“It is our job to protect this important resource, and both Republicans and Democrats from states on the lakes know that the [Great Lakes Restoration Initiative] must receive the funding it needs,” Benacci said.

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