Doug joined The Nature Conservancy in 1995. As a senior conservation scientist, Doug manages the science team for TNC in Michigan and coordinates research and monitoring projects in support of conservation strategies for Michigan and the Great Lakes. He is a co-leader of the Saginaw Bay Monitoring Consortium, developing and initiating a coordinated water quality monitoring approach for Saginaw Bay and its tributaries. He is a trained conservation coach and serves on the core team of the North American Regional Network of the Global Conservation Coaches Network, an international organization applying, promoting and advancing the Conservation Standards.
Doug co-led the development of biodiversity conservation strategies for Lake Michigan and Lake Erie and contributed to similar strategies for each of the other Great Lakes. He also managed the development of the coastal wetland issue for the Blue Accounting initiative—working closely with the Great Lakes Coastal Assembly—developing metrics and progress dashboards to support more effective conservation of coastal wetlands. Doug earned a Ph.D. and an M.S. in natural resource management from the University of Michigan and a B.S. in environmental and forest biology from the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry. Outside of work, he enjoys hiking and puzzles.
A Note from Doug: For this month's blog, I'm joined by former TNC Bailey Conservation Fellow Matthew Jurjonas, Ph.D., who describes his work with TNC in Michigan on the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI). The Essel and Menakka Bailey Conservation Fellowship Program is designed to help develop the conservation leaders of tomorrow by providing recent graduates and early career conservation professionals with the opportunity to work in an environment that combines a deep dive into a specific conservation project with an intro to major conservation issues. My colleagues and I had the pleasure of working with Matt during his fellowship and thank him for sharing his findings here.
The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative
Bringing Ecological and Human Well-being Benefits to the Rust Belt
By Matthew Jurjonas, Ph.D.
Have you ever heard of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, or GLRI, as some would say? No? Well, I would love to share a few thoughts with you, as I had the unique fortune of spending more than a year thinking about it. GLRI really is something you ought to know about! Though, I must admit I hadn’t heard of GLRI—even though I grew up in Chicago—until I had this chance to sit down with it.
Where to begin… To some, I suppose GLRI is mostly the action plans that the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) puts together every few years that outline priorities like removing heavy metals, controlling fertilizer runoff from farms or keeping invasive species like Asian carp or zebra mussels out of the lakes. To others, I would bet it is the annual reports to Congress that pull together all the success stories like building a new park where an old factory had been, dredging out old lumber mill debris, or some good numbers showing how lake trout are doing.
To me, it will always be a large pile of records that few have ever been willing to crack open. More than 5,300 records, that is! And, I have read each of them…twice. Thank the pandemic. With a cup of joe, some music and a whole lot of time—I have GLRI to thank for keeping cabin fever away.
The Industrial History Around the Great Lakes
To understand GLRI, we must talk about the “Rust Belt” and the eight midwestern states that border the Great Lakes on the U.S. side. Back when the heart of U.S. manufacturing was in the Midwest, all the steel plants dotted the shorelines of the Great Lakes. As manufacturing began to decline in the 1950s and these plants began to close, many were abandoned along with all the scrap metal and chemicals still on site, and sometimes in the lakes, creating a need for cleanup.
At the same time, invasive species from across the world were finding their way into the Great Lakes—sometimes in a ship’s ballast, as in the case with the zebra mussels, and other times through connections with the Mississippi River, which has its own invasive species problems. Habitat loss also affects numerous endangered species across the region, like lake sturgeon, wild rice and piping plovers.
What did the EPA do about all of this? They created the largest clean-up and restoration funding program in the U.S., and likely the world. Between 2010 and 2020, more than $3.5 billion were awarded to state governments and local organizations to get those metals out, put vegetation buffers between farms and streams, remove dams, inspect boats, reforest landscapes and protect nesting migratory birds.
What Did I Do?
As I was saying, GLRI is 5,300 things. The plans and reports cover a few different variables and the important progress, but I wanted to know what happened at the local level. I wanted to find out what the project manager behind each of those records did. How did they plan their project? What strategies did they try? How did they know if they were successful? How did they feel about it at the end of the project?
I also wanted to know what these projects were doing for the people and communities that surround them. Believe it or not, most clean-up or restoration projects keep track of the chemicals removed, acres planted, the number of invasive fish trapped or how many endangered butterflies showed up after a new park was protected. However, things like changes to property value, the number of recreational visits, reduced flood risk in a community or educational opportunities for kids in nature are not tracked in those reports.
To answer these questions, the first thing I did was read all those project records and tally it all up. You can find all of those tallies here, in the first complete synthesis of GLRI—that is free for the public to download—ever!
- Want to know how many projects restored passage upstream or downstream for fish through dam modification or removal? 229
- How many sites with toxic substances were dredged? 131
- How many addressed climate change impacts? 89
- How many projects addressed environmental justice? 2
Next, I put together a short online survey to ask the local project managers about their work (if you responded to the survey and are reading this, thank you!). I really wanted to know about the human well-being aspects of GLRI, or, more simply, what was GLRI doing for people and communities.
In short, I found that many project managers were setting goals for people and communities and tracking new ways of measuring success in their clean-up work. For example, one project tracked community perceptions of invasive species removals. Another project designed novel ways to collect public comments during project planning. For those managers who set goals for people and communities, beyond their environmental goals, almost all reported high levels of success.
At the End of the Day
You might be thinking: what can you do with a bunch of tallies and perspectives of project managers? To that, I will say two things.
First, reviewing all those records and presenting them in a format that is easier to digest can help identify gaps in where projects are located and what gets funded. For example, the lack of projects that are addressing climate change impacts or the multiple environmental justice issues in the region—such as high concentrations of contamination in lower-income, historically marginalized and minoritized communities—signals new priority needs for future programming. Tracking can also lead to developing more effective ways of evaluating GLRI success like understanding the relationship between investment and impact.
Second, clean-up and restoration activities are not always easy to fund, and sometimes efforts are needed to build more support to make them happen. Research shows that people care more about the recreation numbers, property value and flood reduction benefits than the invasive species reduction, nest protection for endangered birds or chemicals they may not have heard of. So, with more thorough reporting on those human well-being benefits, in combination with clean-up or restoration benefits, we can help build more community buy-in for GLRI going forward.
So, if you hadn’t heard of GLRI, now you can see that one of the biggest restoration programs in the world is right in your backyard. If you had, I hope this has shared something new. For me, GLRI was a great way to reconnect with the Midwest, through the stories hidden within the records.
Guest Blogger: Matthew Jurjonas, Ph.D.
Matthew Jurjonas is an environmental social scientist whose research broadly focuses on conservation issues, climate adaptation and community resilience in the United States and Mexico. In addition, he strives to incorporate a justice perspective into his research through documenting local barriers to adaptation and the disparities that can emerge in the planning, implementation and aftermath of the conservation or resilience programs that target people and communities. He currently works for Lacy Consulting Services, a conservation start-up focused on including historically underserved voices in planning processes.
North Point Peninsula: Connecting with Great Lakes History, Culture, and Ecology
Nestled along the shore of Lake Huron in northeast Michigan is an area bursting with biodiversity. From the elusive dwarf lake iris to the federally listed endangered Hine’s emerald dragonfly, the North Point Peninsula is a haven for a variety of species and habitats.
As a scientist and conservation planner with The Nature Conservancy (TNC), I have long known of the importance of the Northern Lake Huron shoreline for birds, rocky and sandy beaches, and rare, highly diverse ecosystems such as Alvars, dunes, and coastal fens and the rare species that inhabit them.
Around 20 years ago, when I first learned that a large property had come up for sale on the tip of North Point, I had to check the map to locate that peninsula as it was new to me. I soon visited the site with colleagues and was struck by its surprisingly remote feel, along with the quality of the shoreline and adjacent wetlands and boreal forest. The point had not been well surveyed for rare species, but a few were known and we confirmed their existence, including dwarf lake iris and Pitcher’s thistle, both endemic to the Great Lakes region.
History of the North Point Peninsula
North Point extends about five miles into Lake Huron from just east of Alpena, Michigan. Its limestone bedrock core is overlain by sands deposited by Lake Huron as the land surface rebounded from the weight of the glaciers over thousands of years and undulating old beach ridges are still visible on the forest floor.
Thousands of years before Lake Huron existed as we know it, when waters were at their lowest point in the Great Lakes basin, a land bridge extended from North Point southeastward to what is now Amberley, Ontario. Herds of caribou migrated along this ridge, and the people living here roughly 9,500 years ago exploited that physiography by constructing drive lanes and hunting blinds to funnel the animals for easier harvest.
This close relationship between people and the Great Lakes coast continues to this day, though the caribou have largely vanished from the basin; the Great Lakes and its tributaries sustained people with clean water, fish, and transportation routes, among many other benefits for millennia.
The shallow, rocky coast that was formerly part of the Alpena-Amberley Ridge became a particularly treacherous area for ships navigating Lake Huron, and over 100 shipwrecks are known within the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary, the largest such sanctuary in US Great Lakes Waters.
Ecology and Importance of the Area
Boreal Forests cover much of North Point and extend almost 15 miles northward along the coast, representing one of the southernmost, large chunks of boreal forest in Michigan. Hundreds of acres of rich conifer swamp occur in low-lying areas and swales between the ridges. On the northern shore of the peninsula lies a coastal fen of over 200 acres, as well as Great Lakes marsh that in low-water years extends across portions of Misery Bay to nearby Crooked Island, providing critical habitat for fish and water birds.
In addition to the rare plants, the USFWS has also identified habitat for the Federally Endangered Hine’s emerald dragonfly, one of a handful of places it is known to persist. Finally, peninsulas such as North Point are very important for migrating birds seeking food and rest after crossing the Great Lakes and for concentrations of Monarch Butterflies that form surreal, tremulous clouds of orange and black.
Partnering to Protect North Point
TNC recognized the importance of the shoreline between Alpena and Mackinaw City more than 20 years ago. When the large parcel at the tip of North Point came up for sale in the early 2000s, TNC began to build relationships and negotiate for protection of that property. Unfortunately, we did not reach an agreement with the landowner, though we remain interested in protecting the property.
Subsequently, the adjacent landowner that owned the even larger, neighboring property knew of our interests and when they sought to sell their land we worked with the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary (TBNMS) and several generous donors to negotiate a sale. Huron Pines—a local land trust—has management responsibility, with assistance from the Friends of TBNMS, and we will eventually transfer the property to Huron Pines.
These collective efforts have ensured conservation of some of the peninsula and surrounding waters of North Point, and I look forward to additional conservation to benefit future generations.
Sullivan-Stack, J., Aburto-Oropeza, O., Brooks, C. M., Cabral, R. B., Caselle, J. E., Chan, F., Duffy, J. E., Dunn, D. C., Friedlander, A. M., Fulton-Bennett, H. K., Gaines, S. D., Gerber, L. R., Hines, E., Leslie, H. M., Lester, S. E., MacCarthy, J. M. C., Maxwell, S. M., Mayorga, J., McCauley, D., … Pearsall, D.R., ... Grorud-Colvert, K. (2022). A Scientific Synthesis of Marine Protected Areas in the United States: Status and Recommendations. Frontiers in Marine Science, 9(May), 1–23. https://doi.org/10.3389/fmars.2022.849927
Jurjonas, M., May, C. A., Cardinale, B. J., Pearsall, D., & Doran, P. (2022). A Synthesis of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative According to the Open Standards for the Practice of Conservation. Journal of Great Lakes Research, In press (January). https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jglr.2022.01.008
Liberati, M., Sowa, S., May, C., Doran, P., Kyriakakis, S., Pearsall, D. (2022). Planning for people and nature: Identifying quality-of-life indicators to inform conservation programs for agricultural soil health, Great Lakes coastal wetlands, and urban green infrastructure. Conservation Science and Practice. In review (February).
Jurjonas, M., May, C., Cardinale, B., Kyriakakis, S., Pearsall, D., and Doran, P. (2021). The Perceived Ecological and Human Wellbeing Benefits of Restoration. People and Nature. In review (December).
Weinstein, C. B., Bourgeau-Chavez, L. L., Martin, S. L., Currie, W. S., Grantham, K., Hamlin, Q. F., Hyndman, D. W., Kowalski, K. P., Martina, J. P., & Pearsall, D. (2021). Enhancing Great Lakes coastal ecosystems research by initiating engagement between scientists and decision-makers. Journal of Great Lakes Research, 47(4), 1235–1240. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jglr.2021.04.018
Lishawa, S. C., Dunton, E. M., Pearsall, D. R., Monks, A. M., Himmler, K. B., Carson, B. D., Loges, B., & Albert, D. A. (2020). Wetland Waterbird Food Resources Increased by Harvesting Invasive Cattails. The Journal of Wildlife Management, 1–12. https://doi.org/10.1002/jwmg.21912
Barton, E. M., Pearsall, D. R., & Currie, W. S. (2020). Human appropriated net primary productivity as a metric for land use planning: a case study in the US Great Lakes region. Landscape Ecology, 35(6), 1323–1339. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10980-020-01017-5
Ricart, R.D., Pearsall, D.R., & Curtis, P.S. (2019). Multi-decadal shifts in forest plant diversity and community composition across glacial landforms in northern lower Michigan, USA. Canadian Journal of Forest Research, 135(November 2019), 126–135. https://doi.org/10.1139/cjfr-2019-0138
Pearsall, D.R. 2019. Review of The Death and Life of the Great Lakes, by Dan Egan. Michigan Historical Review. 45(1):129-131, Spring 2019. https://www-jstor-org.proxy.lib.umich.edu/stable/10.5342/michhistrevi.45.1.0129?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents
Pearsall, D.R. 2017. Review of Saving Arcadia: A Story of Conservation and Community in the Great Lakes, by Heather Shumaker. Michigan Historical Review. 43(2):104-105, Fall 2017. http://www.jstor.org.proxy.lib.umich.edu/stable/10.5342/michhistrevi.43.2.0104
Allan, J.D., N.F. Manning, S.D.P. Smith, C.E. Dickinson, C.A. Joseph, and D.R. Pearsall. 2017. Ecosystem services of Lake Erie: Spatial distribution and concordance of multiple services. J. Great Lakes Res. (2017) http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jglr.2017.06.001