Michigan's Top Environmental Experts Share Insights with Green & Blue Network

Monday, August 18, 2014

Land protection efforts involving Michigan’s critical dunes are only one part of a larger system of conservation action that is needed if Michigan is to succeed in saving these natural wonders, advises the state director of The Nature Conservancy.

Helen Taylor, who also serves as a commissioner on the Great Lakes Commission, recently shared her expertise on how best to protect Michigan’s duneland with members of the Council of Michigan Foundations’ (CMF) Green & Blue Network. (See Overview Feature)

“Land protection of our dune system is now only one tool in the tool bag,” shared Taylor. “There also is science, there’s advocacy and there are actual solutions. All of these activities – and that includes the development of good policies – need to be looked at in context of the larger health of the (dune) system in Michigan.

“By doing so you’ll make smarter decisions, develop better long-term planning goals and you’ll ensure coastal health in a way that you can’t achieve by any one of those singular tools,” she added.

Foundations can play an important part in this environmental effort through support of these various components, noted Taylor, adding that one needs to get his/her arms around the scale and impact of the entire “big picture” if success is to be achieved.

“Science is an important part of making sure we understand what it means to sustainably use these resources. Good science will inform better policies so we need to get the science right.

“To write a good Critical Dunes Act (state law) you have to understand what is the health of the eco-system and how does it work. Then you need the advocacy for public awareness. And then you need to have organizations that are actually on the ground restoring the land and physically working with landowners so they know what to do.”

Understanding – and working with – all these interconnected issues and related strategies is paramount to achieving overall success, The Nature Conservancy leader noted.

However, often it is confusing for people and organizations – including foundations – to figure out which environmentally focused group is doing what and how they are all different, warned Taylor.

“Simply put, the kind of investment areas that are really important for environmental health are science, advocacy and information and actual hands-on solutions at the ground level. These are the key areas which foundations can get behind and support.”

Joining Taylor in discussions were:

  • Former State Senator Patty Birkholz, currently director of the West Michigan League of Conservation Voters and a life-long champion of protecting the state’s natural resources.
  • Shaun Howard, Eastern Lake Michigan Project Manager for The Nature Conservancy.
  • April Scholtz, Land Protection Director for the Land Conservancy of West Michigan.
  • David Allan, professor, University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources

“There are two development projects currently under way in Saugatuck that are threatening our beautiful dunes, but we are working hard to find ways to protect them,” shared Birkholz.

“Michigan sand dunes are rare and critical to our environment and our economy,” said Birkholz. “However, in 2012 Michigan’s elected officials enacted legislation that dramatically weakened the state’s Critical Dunes Act, making it easier for developers to buy and build on this fragile area along our coastlines.”

The battle to protect these “environmental treasures” is not over, promised Birkholz. “We are continuing conversations to not only work with them (developers) to protect as much of these dunelands as possible, but also to see if we can find a way to buy back – and protect – this land.”

Foundations can help in this ongoing effort by talking with state leaders and advocating the strengthening of Michigan’s Critical Dunes Act, suggested Birkholz.

The Nature Conservancy’s Howard took the Green & Blue Network group through a brief educational session on the ecosystems of the different types of duneland and how they support various unique species of land and aquatic life.

“Dunes are also the homes of some endangered plant and animal life, including Pitcher’s Thistle and the Piping plover,” he said.

Howard noted his current focus deals with the study, impact, control and eradication of different invasive species that are decimating many areas of the state, including dunes.

“In 2001 a Lake Michigan Coastal Threat Assessment survey was conducted and identified 42 sites in need of help with invasive species,” noted Howard.

Howard shared with the attendees the example of Baby’s Breath – an extremely virulent invasive plant species – in Michigan.

“Thanks to our current Lake Michigan Coastal Restoration Project, we identified more than 1,800 acres of duneland that had been infested with Baby’s Breath,” he said. “As a result, in seven years, nearly 80% of all Baby’s Breath populations have received control treatment.

“If foundations such as yours are interested in helping, we always are in need of matching funds to secure both state and federal remediation grants,” he said. “Also, providing grants for such things as project implementation, outreach and education and project design are always helpful as well.”

U of M Professor Allan took center stage to share his – and his environmental students’ – efforts to create new and more accurate databases of information to help state and federal agencies, private scientific efforts and environmentalists pinpoint specific ecosystem areas and needs along with ways to promote better, quicker and more financially prudent responses.

“We’re better able now to assess the value of the Great Lakes, but we’ve learned we need more specific ecosystems’ data for such things as beaches, birding, drinking water, power plants, parks, sports and commercial fishing, boating and shipping,” said Allan.

To create better databases, Allan said he and his students have been using records from state and national property/land organizations, the Census Bureau, maritime centers, and even apps such as Google Earth.

“The more specific information we have about each of our state’s ecosystems, the better able we are to focus our attention, limited resources and efforts to improve them,” noted the professor.


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