Commission calls for new advocacy strategy for 107th Congress: Egrets, alligators, lake trout and eagles

It’s time to reassert the national and global stature of the Great Lakes
By: Dr. Michael J. Donahue, Executive Director, Great Lakes Commission

In the closing weeks of the 106th Congress, landslide votes in both the House and Senate yielded one of the largest environmental restoration projects in U.S. history. Some $7.8 billion will be directed at efforts to reverse decades of environmental damage in the Florida Everglades. One leading advocate of the project described the bill as “our best hope to save the Everglades, to protect the egrets and alligators, and to restore the balance between the human environment and the natural system in south Florida.”

Who was this advocate? Was it a Florida legislator looking after the interests of his constituents and their treasured resource? No. It was none other than Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, an upstate New York Republican and chair of the House Transportation Water Resources Subcommittee. And, I might add, a good friend of the Great Lakes.

What induced Rep. Boehlert, and his House and Senate colleagues, to collectively vote 479-15 in favor of this landmark initiative? The answer is obvious. It was a large-scale, long-term strategy that succeeded through a groundswell of unified local support and bipartisan action in Congress. And, it succeeded because the Florida Everglades were (very appropriately) characterized as a resource of national significance. The New York Times recently called them a “treasured ecosystem that lawmakers ranked with the Mississippi River, the Grand Canyon and the redwood forests of California.” (Note that the Great Lakes were not mentioned among these treasures. Talk about adding insult to injury!)

As a former Florida resident, I’ll be the first to agree that this initiative is important and well-deserved. The Everglades are indeed a national treasure, woven into the ecological and economic fabric of south Florida. I’m glad they’re receiving this much-deserved attention and support. But, with all due respect, they aren’t the Great Lakes.

What was the status of Great Lakes deliberations as all this was going on? While a nationwide bipartisan coalition was brokering a multibillion dollar initiative for the Everglades, Great Lakes advocates seemed content to seek only incremental improvements to the status quo. And, when a modest infusion of prospective funds was proposed by the administration ($50 million for Areas of Concern cleanup), advocates seemed to expend all their energy debating how to allocate the funds, rather than how to develop a unified front to make sure the funds became a reality.

It’s time to think big, to raise our sights and our ambitions. It’s time to reassert the national and global stature of the Great Lakes and let Congress know that saving the Everglades and the Mississippi and the redwoods is only part of the equation. It’s time for all Great Lakes advocates to join forces and support the big picture, and leave quibbling over the details for another time and place. And, it’s time for us to reject the “inside the beltway” philosophy that focuses on what is possible from a political standpoint; we need to focus on what is good for the resource. Indeed, the greatest system of freshwater on the face of the earth deserves no less.

Let’s take the “phantom $50 million” of last session, add one or two zeros, and make it the goal for the Great Lakes in the 107th Congress. Working together, it can happen. Wouldn’t it be great, a year or two from now, to have a Florida congressman singing the praises of a bill that is “our best hope to save the Great Lakes”? The egrets and alligators are enjoying their day in the sun; our lake trout and eagles deserve theirs.

Note: The Great Lakes Commission is supporting a renewed focus on congressional advocacy through a new staff position and regional strategy. For details, contact Mike Donahue at 734-665-9135 or mdonahue@glc.org.

For immediate release: November 13, 2000
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The Great Lakes Commission, chaired by Nathaniel E. Robinson (Wisconsin), is a nonpartisan, binational compact agency created by state and U.S. federal law and dedicated to promoting a strong economy, healthy environment and high quality of life for the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence region and its residents. The Commission consists of state legislators, agency officials and governors’ appointees from its eight member states. Associate membership for Ontario and Quebec was established through the signing of a “Declaration of Partnership.” The Commission maintains a formal Observer program involving U.S. and Canadian federal agencies, tribal authorities, binational agencies and other regional interests. The Commission offices are located in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

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