We need to push for Great Lakes rehab plan
Written by Booth Newspapers   
Wednesday, 17 August 2005 01:50
One of the more hopeful bits of news for this part of the country to come out of Washington in recent times was the Bush administration's July announcement of a draft action plan to rehabilitate the Great Lakes.

The plan shows that the feds recognize the significance of these unparalleled natural resources. But before we throw a party, let's make note that the multi-billion dollar project is still only a proposal; we are long way from actually seeing the money appropriated.

Still, hoping to build on the momentum the July announcement created, an alphabet soup of conservation and government agencies teamed up to schedule two recent events -- each billed as "A Day on the Bay" -- to raise awareness of the issues the Great Lakes face.

None is any greater than disappearing wetlands.

As most sportsmen know, wetlands are highly productive habitats that hold the key to many fish and wildlife populations. Nonetheless, wetlands -- those that remain -- continue to suffer from environmental degradation.

It's estimated that as many as two-thirds of the Great Lakes wetlands have disappeared, including about half of Michigan's wetlands, and in some places it's even worse. Saginaw Bay, for instance, has lost 95 percent of its wetlands.

Ironically, many governmental policies continue to degrade those wetlands. In 2003, the Michigan Legislature passed a law (the so-called beach-grooming law) that allowed landowners to "improve" their properties down to the water's edge. Previously, landowners were restricted from scarring the land below the high-water mark.

Despite protests from natural resources professionals, Gov. Jennifer Granholm signed the law. And what happened since is exactly what the naysayers said would: Great lakes levels have risen. So the land at water's edge that was "improved" by landowners dragging disks across it is now under water again -- minus the root stock of the vegetation.

Such "improvements'' impact surrounding wetlands as well. The buffering characteristics of emergent vegetation (such as bulrushes) against wave action helps protect wetlands. By fragmenting those wetlands -- clearing a portion of them -- surrounding sites are degraded.

Waterfowl hunters are keenly aware of the significance of wetlands. In Michigan, mallards are the most numerous ducks in the hunters' bags and 52 percent of those killed are produced in the Great Lakes region. How many more would we have if we hadn't wiped out that habitat?

Similarly, you don't have to have a lot of gray hair to remember when pike fishing was much better than it is today. Pike depend on marshes for spawning and nursery habitat. When the wetlands disappear, where do the pike go?

The entire ecosystem is compromised when wetlands, which make up only a fraction of the Great Lakes but are responsible for much of their productivity, are degraded. The smallest components of the food webs, the invertebrates, have a lot to do with fish and wildlife survival. Insect larva may not be sexy -- not when compared to Kirtland's warblers, for instance -- but we must remember that all of God's creations, no matter how insignificant they may appear, have a role in the overall scheme of things. Even mosquitoes. Even blood worms. Even Democrats.

The recent Supreme Court ruling affirming the public's interest in the land between the high-water mark and the water (the beach-walking case) illustrates that the government has a responsibility to the public to protect wetlands for the overall good. A more environmentally oriented administration would never have signed the beach-grooming bill.

Whether the Great Lakes rehabilitation plan will gather the momentum it needs to become a reality remains to be seen. Only one thing is certain: Unless the American people lobby congress to make it happen, it won't.

And if it doesn't, the Great Lakes will continue to be much less than they could for the fish and wildlife resources who depend on them -- and the sportsmen who use on them for recreation.

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