In a time of seemingly overwhelming environmental challenges, it is important to remember that many unheralded individuals are working successfully to protect the Great Lakes. John Hartig profiles some of them in his new book, Great Lakes Champions. FLOW asked Hartig about the book’s message, the people he profiles, and the overall health of the Great Lakes.
FLOW: Tell us a little about your new book, Great Lake Champions.
John Hartig: Great Lakes Champions is the story of 14 people who love the Great Lakes, stepped up to become leaders of restoration efforts, and inspired others to follow. They have had to
persevere over decades and not give up in the face of adversity. They’re well respected and trusted in their communities and are not in it for acclaim or commendation. They simply and profoundly love the Great Lakes, show reverence for them, and work tirelessly to pass them on as a gift to future generations. Their stories are compelling and provide proof that individuals can indeed change the ecosystems where they live. I hope their stories will inspire a new generation of Great Lakes champions.
FLOW: Where did the idea for this book come from?
John Hartig: In my more than 40-year career, I have had the honor and privilege of working with and becoming friends with many people who had devoted their careers to these watershed cleanup efforts. They so inspired me that I decided to write a book about them.
FLOW: What are examples of champions that you profile in the book?
John Hartig: Champions come from all walks of life but share a love of the Great Lakes and a desire to make a difference in the watershed they call home. Here are just a few, which include a:
- Husband-and-wife team who helped orchestrate a more than $1.6 billion cleanup of one of the most polluted bays on the Great Lakes.
- Local environmentalist working for a nongovernmental organization who brought stakeholders together to realize $50 million of contaminated sediment remediation and more than $22 million of habitat rehabilitation.
- Provincial public servant who brought all stakeholders together to clean up their Area of Concern, which was the first to be removed from the international hotspot list—and worked through a nongovernmental organization to help the local town to rebrand itself as a town committed to excellence in pursuit of sustainability.
- Drain commissioner who helped bring together 48 communities in his watershed to become the first U.S. watershed to have all communities with national stormwater permits.
- Head of an environmental justice organization who championed a local mercury-pollution prevention campaign that became a national model and who spearheaded a climate change action plan.
- Member of the Waterkeeper Alliance who led their organization to become the first nonprofit to fulfill the role of non-federal sponsor of Great Lakes Restoration Initiative projects, which would serve as a model for the rest of the Great Lakes.
- Local land use planner who brought together federal, provincial, and local stakeholders to restore fish and wildlife habitats and help create an EcoPark system; and
- First Nation council member who fought for the cleanup of industrial processes and lands and to get others to view their waters and lands as sacred, requiring a stewardship ethic.
FLOW: What is your characterization overall of the Great Lakes? Are they improving, staying the same, or deteriorating?
John Hartig: It’s often said that Areas of Concern are microcosms of the Great Lakes. Since 1985, nine Areas of Concern have been taken off the list of international pollution hotspots. As of 2021, 102 of 255 impaired beneficial uses have been eliminated in U.S. Areas of Concern, and 68 of the 121 impaired beneficial uses have been eliminated in Canadian Areas of Concern. Although this has been a slow process, it does show progress.
Cleanup and restoration of the Areas of Concern are essential to restoring the health of the Great Lakes. However, there are lakewide issues that must be addressed to meet the long-term goal of restoring the physical, chemical, and biological integrity of the Great Lakes. For example, climate change is the most pressing ecosystem challenge of the 21st century and is considered a “threat multiplier” where warmer, wetter, and wilder climatic conditions amplify other threats like harmful algal blooms, combined sewer overflow events, species changes, poor air quality effects on vulnerable residents, and more. Other lakewide issues include food web changes resulting from the introduction of exotic species and continued health advisories on fish.
About the author: John Hartig serves as a Visiting Scholar at the University of Windsor’s Great Lakes Institute for Environmental Research and on the Board of Directors of the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy. For 14 years he served as Refuge Manager for the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge. Hartig has received numerous awards for his work, including a 2022 Michigan Notable Leader in Sustainability award from Crain’s’s Detroit Business and the 2015 Conservationist of the Year Award from the John Muir Association. He has authored or co-authored over 100 publications on the environment, including seven books.