Traverse City Participates in a Binational Exercise to Re-energize the Ecosystem Approach

Illustration: Mariah Alexander

By John Hartig, Great Lakes Institute for Environmental Research, University of Windsor

Last month, 13 people representing diverse backgrounds met in a Traverse City workshop to brainstorm on how to make better use of something called “an ecosystem approach” in Great Lakes protection and restoration.

Part of an effort spanning the entire Great Lakes watershed, the workshop enabled participants to offer specific ideas on how the approach might relate to their efforts. But what is an ecosystem approach?

An ecosystem approach is a technique used to strengthen the linkages among science, policy and management for achieving and sustaining healthy ecosystems. It considers the well-being of all components of an ecosystem like the Great Lakes, including humans, rather than addressing problems and solutions as separate, isolated concerns.

Although this approach has a long history in the Great Lakes basin, there is growing interest in re-energizing it.

The Great Lakes community celebrated the 50th anniversaries of the Canada-U.S. Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement and the U.S. Clean Water Act in 2022. This landmark agreement and law, as well as many Great Lakes programs, are grounded in ecosystem-based management.

Over the past 50 years, we have witnessed many successes like reducing municipal and industrial point source pollution, slowing the introductions of invasive species, and delisting several Great Lakes pollution hotspots (known as Areas of Concern). However, many challenges remain, like addressing polluted runoff from farms and city streets and climate change.

There have been once-unimaginable advancements in science and technology that allow us to collect data on more variables, analyze much more data, create more sophisticated models, and more accurately forecast changes in these complex ecosystems. There have been fundamental changes in how people get their information and whom they trust to receive it from, coupled with seemingly increased sociopolitical polarization.

There has been an increased interest in understanding the social, cultural, and economic value of the Great Lakes and how their health is intimately tied to the lives and livelihoods of the people that live and visit here. There is more awareness that Great Lakes coasts also represent one most poignant examples of inequity in terms of access to and benefits from the Great Lakes, the ecosystem services they provide, and the environmental and conservation efforts taken to protect and restore them.

An ecosystem approach also considers all stakeholders together, rather than a handful of traditional constituencies. The goal of convening them is to identify measurable ecosystem goals, co-produce knowledge, co-innovate solutions, and practice adaptive management – assess, set priorities, and take action in an iterative fashion for continuous improvement – to achieve ecosystem goals.

Last year, the Healthy Headwaters Lab of the University of Windsor’s Great Lakes Institute for Environmental Research and many partners convened an international conference on “The Ecosystem Approach in the 21st Century: Guiding Science and Management” at the University of Windsor. Working groups produced recommendations on how boundary organizations, actors, and teams can better support and accelerate more strategic, holistic, and partnership-driven efforts, and each prepared a paper that will be published in a special issue of the journal Aquatic Ecosystem Health & Management.

The next step in this project includes sharing information from the international ecosystem approach conference and getting stakeholder feedback on ways and means of advancing the ecosystem approach from 15 public forums or workshops throughout the Great Lakes Basin. On October 19, Michigan Sea Grant and FLOW convened one of these workshops in Traverse City. Traverse City was chosen because of its longstanding efforts to protect Grand Traverse Bay, Michigan Sea Grant’s support of the ecosystem approach, and FLOW’s leadership in systems thinking – another form of an ecosystem approach.

There was broad agreement among the 13 workshop participants that the ecosystem approach is important and relevant. Examples of Traverse City stakeholder input received include:

  • Priority should be placed on ecosystem approach education, including K-12 and post-secondary;
  • Ecosystem approach legislation should be considered at the state, provincial, and federal government levels;
  • Priority should be placed on getting local ecosystems in the hearts and minds of local people through storytelling, slogans (e.g., “Your Bay, Your Say” from Traverse City’s Waterfront Plan), art, and creating a sense of responsibility (e.g., First Nations believe that water and all life are sacred, show reverence toward the water, plants, animals and ecosystems, and have a stewardship ethic);
  • Greater emphasis needs to be placed on breaking down the “silo mentality” (i.e., unwillingness to share information or knowledge between or across different departments or organizations) and improve communication and foster cooperative learning;
  • Communities should develop and share broadly ecosystem approach success stories; and
  • The region should increase emphasis on proactive ecosystem approaches that anticipate and prevent problems, rather than responding to environmental crises.

       At the completion of this project in the spring of 2024, a summary report will be released that includes all findings and recommendations for broad distribution throughout the Great Lakes Basin. To learn more about this ecosystem approach project, visit If you have further questions, please contact our ecosystem approach team at


Dr. John Hartig is currently a Visiting Scholar at the Great Lakes Institute for Environmental Research at the University of Wiindsor. For 14 years he served as Refuge Manager for the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge. John also serves on the Board of Directors of the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy.

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