Great Lakes champs are part of the ecosystem they protect


Longtime Great Lakes expert John Hartig profiles their champions. Image: University of Windsor.

By Jada Vasser

A new book about the Great Lakes is written to reflect that their problems, solutions and champions are interrelated, much like the ecosystem it portrays.

“This whole thing of bringing stakeholders together, creating a vision, co-producing knowledge, co-innovating solutions is in the book,” author John Hartig said. “You don’t get that anywhere else.”

Hartig’s “Great Lakes Champions: Grassroots Efforts to Clean Up Polluted Watersheds,” highlights 14 people who created programs and solutions to help communities that depend on the Great Lakes. These leaders took on the goal of restoring the Great Lakes through service and guidance.

They all are hardworking and determined and share the same love for the Great Lakes, Hartig said.

“The pollution problems of the Great Lakes are really people problems,” he said. “People created these problems and to solve them it’s going to take people working together.”

The retired director of the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge, Hartig continues his lifelong Great Lakes work as a visiting scholar at the University of Windsor and a member of the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy board of directors.

Through research, education and advocacy, he has fought for the cleanup of the Great Lakes, demonstrating why the action is necessary and significant to the communities that benefit from them. And he has paid attention to people who have done similar work.

Hartig profiled people whom he deemed as Great Lakes champions. They share the same passion: to restore the Great Lakes and to help their community remember how important the lakes are for people.

“They’re well respected in the community and they have trust,” Hartig said. “It takes sometimes decades to get trust.”

Such trust comes from advocacy groups, religious organizations, governments and industry, he said.

“They were these facilitators of the process and that takes a rare person.”

The champions include a married couple working to clean up Green Bay, drain commissioners who brought communities together to do group service, members of the Water-keeper Alliance that led many efforts in keeping the water clean and safe to consume, local government officials who fought to clean up industrial processes. Many of these people worked on environmental justice before it was fashionable, especially in Detroit, Hartig said.

These champions realize it is important to know that when you do not know the answer, you should create boundaries on what you are an expert on and what you need to seek more knowledge on, Hartig said. It is a strategy that creates connections. People who are okay with saying they do not know everything create a sense of modesty and open the door for collaboration, Hartig said.

John Hartig notes that new Great Lakes champions can apply lessons learned in the past to emerging problems. Image: Michigan State University Press.

And new Great Lakes champions are emerging, he said. People strive every day to help the lakes out and to continue the work of the earlier champions.

The lessons learned by the generation of champions he wrote about should not get lost as today’s problems call for a new  mechanisms and assets to solve them, Hartig said. Each generation comes with its set of environmental issues. Thirty years ago, science was more respected than it is now.

The misinformation that is prevalent today washes away the foundations of science, he said. Years ago, everyone just believed and trusted what was said about the environment.

That erosion of trust in science complicates problems like climate change. Emerging champions will have to learn to balance work in progress while staying up to date with what climate change is doing, he said.

“I think this generation has some other challenges to deal with like misinformation and disinformation,” Hartig said. “They have to fight that battle and then now I think they have to also be always thinking about climate change.”

Climate change is the most pressing environmental challenge of our time, he said.

It leads to intense storms, higher water runoff and more erosion that can contaminate food webs and chains. The emerging champions must have the same passion as the previous ones. But they are taking on distinct challenges with a new wave of environmental problems. Good facilitators and having a passionate support system fuels the involved individuals to becoming champions, he said.

“Great Lakes Champions: Grassroots Efforts to Clean Up Polluted Watersheds” is at Amazon, Barnes and Noble and Michigan State University Press. It costs $24.95.

What makes it different is that it manifests “the importance and the value and benefit of the ecosystem approach,” Hartig said.

“You can see in the real world how it’s done.”

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