Saturday, February 25, 2012

Provocateurs, Incrementalists, and Sustainability Entrepreneurs by Moderator John Hartig

In any major, long-term effort or project inertia will eventually set in. At that point we need provocateurs – people who challenge the status quo and challenge conventional wisdom. In the case of the Buffalo River, a jeweler named Stanley Spisiak played a critical role as a “watch dog,” changed public sentiment, and eventually was credited with stopping indiscriminant industrial pollution of the Buffalo River. Later, the Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper continued to effectively fill that role. In the case of the Cuyahoga River, David Blaushild, an automobile dealer, raised awareness of water pollution and became an activist for river cleanup. In the case of the Rouge River, a county drain commissioner named Jim Murray challenged the 48 watershed communities to protect their watershed home. In 1880, a Citizens’ Association was formed to investigate remedies to cholera and typhoid fever outbreaks, and to educate residents. Their advocacy helped create a regional governmental entity called the Sanitary District of Chicago in 1889 to address the water supply and wastewater problems. Today, the Friends of the Chicago River regularly challenge established practices and advocate for river stewardship.

The provocateur role can be played by individuals or groups like nongovernmental organizations. Such provocateurs have played and must continue to play key roles in river revival and watershed protection. They fill the important roles of raising awareness, questioning conventional wisdom and practice, catalyzing action and change, serving as an environmental conscience, and speaking as a voice for future generations. In essence, river restoration processes need both incrementalists (i.e., people and organizations that follow patient application of the small, very important tasks of watershed restoration) and provocateurs that champion fundamental paradigm shifts. What needs to occur is a dynamic tension between the two.

Many people have asked me “What is the major accomplishment of the public outcry over environmental pollution in the 1960s?” That is easy – it was the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, the U.S.-Canada Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, and Earth Day. These same people have asked “What is the major accomplishment in more recent years?” I believe it is the expansion and proliferation of nongovernmental organizations established to protect the environment and conserve natural resources. The environmental movement developed a generation of people concerned about the environment. As more awareness was raised about pollution, more people got involved and many new environmental and conservation organizations were established. As more people and environmental and conservation organizations were created, more support for pollution prevention/control and conservation was generated. As more support for pollution prevention/control and conservation has been generated, a better knowledge base has been developed for better management. This improved knowledge base leads to a better informed constituency and the cycle continues. As we all know, an educated and informed constituency can change public sentiment.

If you believe, as I, that sustainable development is the next major challenge then we also need sustainability entrepreneurs that engage people meaningfully at all levels in achieving sustainability. That is why it is so heartening to see sustainability organizations like EcoCity Cleveland, Sustainable Cleveland, Chicago’s Greening Network, the Western New York Sustainable Energy Association Trust, and Southeast Michigan Sustainable Business Forum building the institutional capacity for meeting the sustainability challenge at the local level. Clearly, an important lesson is that we need provocateurs, incrementalists, and sustainability entrepreneurs to avoid the next “tipping point.”

What do you think is needed to avoid the next “tipping point?”

Photo above: Provocateur Stanley Spisiak (4 th  from left), President and Mrs. Johnson (center), Governor Nelson Rockefeller (2 nd  from right), and others discuss the “bucket of slop” from the Buffalo River, 1966 (photo credit: Buffalo & Erie County Historical Society). 

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Is the Glass Half Empty or Half Full? by Moderator John Hartig

Discussion Topic: Burning Rivers: Revival of Four Urban-Industrial Rivers That Caught Fire

Is the glass half empty or half full?  This is a common expression used by people to perceive situations or events.  It is truly a philosophical question that points out that a particular situation can be viewed either optimistically (half full) or pessimistically (half empty), depending upon an individual’s perspective.  This question is frequently used to demonstrate that in many situations individuals can perceive them as an opportunity or as trouble, depending upon an individual’s point of view.

In my previous post I documented the revival of these four rivers.  However, considerable remediation and restoration work is needed to restore the physical, chemical, and biological integrity of these rivers consistent 
with the goals of the Clean Water Act and U.S.-Canada Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement

For example, in New York’s Buffalo River scientists suggest that recovery of macrobenthic invertebrates is likely stalled without contaminated sediment remediation and habitat rehabilitation.  In Ohio’s Cuyahoga River, scientists have identified organic enrichment, nutrients, bacteria, flow alteration, toxicity, and degraded habitats as the remaining primary causes of use impairment.  Major remaining sources of impairment include municipal and industrial point sources, combined sewer and sanitary overflows, and to a lesser extent natural conditions.  In Michigan’s Rouge River, exceedances of water quality standards continue to be reported and the lower river is plagued by contaminated sediment.  Scientists have quantified that 23% of the Rouge River watershed has been transformed into impervious surface that causes both significant runoff problems and loss of habitat.  Research has shown that watershed health begins to decline when impervious surface coverage exceeds 10% and becomes severely impaired if this number climbs beyond 30%.  The Chicago Waterway System consists of 78 miles of canals, of which 75% are human-made where flow is artificially controlled by hydraulic structures.  It was created to fulfill two primary purposes: drainage of urban storm water runoff and treated municipal effluent; and commercial navigation.  Exceedances of water quality standards and guidelines continue to occur because of its primary intent is to function as a ship and sanitary canal.  In addition, it lacks diverse habitat types found in natural rivers and there is growing public support for ecological separation of the Chicago Waterway System from Lake Michigan to protect the Great Lakes from Asian carp.  Clearly, much remains to be done.

City of Dearborn and many partners restoring riparian habitat along the Rouge River in Ford Field (Photo Credit: City of Dearborn)

My question for you is “Should we focus most on the problems that remain, the progress achieved, or a combination of both?”  And if you believe as I do that we need to focus on both, what is the relative priority between them?  

Many environmental organizations and advocacy groups have historically focused most on identifying major problems and “pointing the finger” at who is likely responsible because that drives action and gets attention.  However, if we exclusively follow that approach, we may be missing an opportunity to bring these parties on board as partners to help solve remaining problems that will require cooperation and partnerships.  For example, each of these four urban rivers is plagued by storm water runoff problems and loss of habitat.  Clearly the solutions to these two problems will require much cooperation and voluntary effort.  I believe that we need to: celebrate the progress achieved in these rivers; identify clearly the remaining problems and remedial responsibilities; ensure that we have strong regulatory and enforcement programs; and yet not lose a unique opportunity to work collaboratively on solving remaining pressing problems like storm water runoff and loss of habitat.  In watershed management of these four rivers, and others, cooperative partnerships are becoming more important and we must not shut the door on this unique opportunity.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Why Care about Burning Rivers? by Moderator John Hartig

Discussion Topic: Burning Rivers: Revival of Four Urban-Industrial Rivers That Caught Fire

I recently got some feedback from a businessperson who questioned why I would ever want to write or talk about rivers that burned.  This person felt that by writing and speaking about Burning Rivers I was somehow continuing the perception that these rivers are merely polluted rivers in the Rust Belt.  I couldn’t disagree more.  

I think it is important to remember that at one or more times in our history rivers actually caught on fire because of substantial oil pollution.  This may seem incredible to us now, but it occurred and we need to remember why and how it happened so that we can make sure that it doesn’t happen again.   It is indeed amazing to think that the Buffalo, Cuyahoga, Rouge, and Chicago rivers were four of the most polluted rivers in North America.  Oil pollution of the Buffalo and Rouge rivers is now credited with being a catalyst for the industrial pollution control programs in New York and Michigan, respectively.  Chicago River fires became a minor local tourist attraction.  But it was the June 22, 1969 Cuyahoga River fire that captured national attention because it occurred right when there was growing national recognition of environmental pollution and right when the national media began to cover the environment as a serious issue.  The 1969 Cuyahoga River fire went on to become the “poster child” of the environmental movement and was a catalyst for change because it was the right event at the right time.  It literally helped awaken the nation to widespread environmental degradation. 
1969 Cuyahoga River fire
Public outcry over water pollution in these rivers and Lake Erie was voiced in public hearings convened by the Federal Water Pollution Control Administration in the late 1960s.  This public outcry clearly was a catalyst for the establishment of the 1972 Clean Water Act and the 1972 U.S.-Canada Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (renewed in 1978). 

There is no doubt that these historical accounts of river fires document peak water pollution and peak societal indifference to it.  Equally important, though, is the remarkable environmental progress since these pollution-induced river fires.  For example, in 1968 when the Buffalo River caught on fire there were no fish in the lower river.  Today, you can find 25-30 species of fish, a substantially improved macrobenthic invertebrate community, and peregrine falcons reproducing in downtown Buffalo.  In 1969 when the Cuyahoga River caught on fire there were few if any fish in the lower river.  Today, you can find 70 species of fish, pollution sensitive macrobenthic invertebrates, peregrine falcons, bald eagles, and osprey.  In 1969 when the Rouge River caught on fire even pollution tolerant carp were dying in the lower river because of oxygen depletion.  Today, oxygen conditions have improved, fish are returning, and peregrine falcons and bank swallows have returned.  In the late 1800s and early 1900s when the Chicago River caught on fire people feared the river because of waterborne disease epidemics and were disgusted because of slaughterhouse waste and raw sewage.  Today, waterborne disease epidemics have been eliminated, river oxygen conditions have improved, and you can find 70 species of fish and watch peregrine falcons.  Again, it is important to recognize that these river fires provide important benchmarks that document the severity of pollution at the height of industrial and societal indifference, and help document the substantial progress achieved to date.

Today, educators talk about measuring student achievement in two basic ways: against a numerical standard like 60%, 70%, 80%, or 90%; and against a starting benchmark to be able to measure how far they have come.  These educators would clearly be pleased with how far these four rivers have come relative to where they started.  This not only gives much to be proud of for the denizens of these four metropolitan areas, but it gives four shining examples of urban river revival that serve as beacons of hope throughout the world.

We also must remember that today all young people were born after these river fires occurred.  Many may not even know that, at one time, rivers caught on fire.  This generation needs to know the story of Burning Rivers and the river revival underway.  Clearly, more needs to be done to fully realize long-term goals of restoring the physical, chemical, and biological integrity of these aquatic ecosystems.  However, the progress achieved to date, the informed, engaged, and vocal stakeholders and nongovernmental organizations involved, the broad-based desire to create a sense of place along these rivers and in these watersheds, the recognition that these river ecosystems are indeed home to watershed residents (and what we do to these river ecosystems, we indeed do to ourselves), and the community pride that has been developed in these rivers bodes well for further revival.  And yes this gives hope!  Our challenge is to make sure that the environmental hope these four river revival stories gives is not dimmed and that these rivers continue to improve through watershed stewardship toward our long-term need of sustainable development.  

What do you think?

[Editor:  Please click on Comments link to share your thoughts and ideas and ask John a question or two.]

Friday, February 10, 2012

Burning Rivers Discussion Begins February 12 with Moderator/Author Dr. John Hartig

Welcome Dr. John Hartig, moderator of our next WILD READ discussion that begins February 12.  He is the author of Burning Rivers: Revival of Four Urban-Industrial Rivers That Caught Fire.  Our conversations here will focus on "Urban Conservation" as a theme and John will post his thoughts and converse with you for the next month.

Dr. John Hartig is trained as a limnologist with 30 years of practical experience in environmental science and natural resource management. He currently serves as Refuge Manager for the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge.  From 1999 to 2004 he served as River Navigator for the Greater Detroit American Heritage River Initiative established by Presidential Executive Order.  Prior to becoming River Navigator, he spent 12 years working for the International Joint Commission on the Canada-U.S. Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement.  John has been an Adjunct Professor at Wayne State University where he taught Environmental Management and Sustainable Development.  He has authored or co-authored over 100 publications on the Great Lakes, including co-editing two books.  John has received a number of awards for his work, including the 2003 Anderson-Everett Award from the International Association for Great Lakes Research and the 1993 Sustainable Development Award for Civic Leadership from Global Tomorrow Coalition.

See also some interesting links including book reviews:

Honoring Dr. John Hartig on his selection as a Michigan Green Leader - Congressional Record Volume 156, Number 52 (Wednesday, April 14, 2010
When Our Rivers Caught Fire - Michigan Environment Report - July 2011
Great Lakes Law book review - July 2011
National Wildlife Federation - Wildlife Promises from Around the Federation Blog - Book Review - July 2011
e4Outdoors. com - Book Review

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Thanks and goodbye from Moderator Scott Weidensaul

Discussion Topic: Return to Wild America: A Yearlong Search for the Continent's Natural Soul

It's been a real pleasure to be part of America's WILD READ,and I want to thank Anne Post and the National Conservation Training Center for giving me the opportunity to moderate this discussion for the past month – and to everyone (including some of the former moderators) who helped make this such a fascinating conversation.

The ground we've covered – what is and is not"wild," and how much of that determination comes from within ourselves and how much is intrinsic in the land and wildlife; how we restore wild landscapes, what our goals for restoration should be, and whether we should even call it "restoration"; whether we're at our core optimists or pessimists, and how that effects our outlook – all of this circles back to some of the core questions I was pursuing in Return to Wild America.

What does it mean to be a conservationist at the start ofthe 21st century? What will be the legacy of the next 50 years, should anyone try a centenary lap around the country as I had done, chasing Peterson andFisher's ghosts to sample the heartbeat of wild America? How will we as a generation stack up when compared with what our predecessors accomplished, and what they lost?

I don't have answers for those questions. I do know there will be heartbreaking losses (there always are) and stunning victories we can't even contemplate – and I know that our job, as Bill Sherwonit pointed out yesterday, is to pay attention and share the news.

And – perhaps most importantly – it's our job to enjoy the living hell out of it. For all the troubles, for all the grief, for all the wounds, this is still an astonishing, staggering, achingly lovely land, and we have a responsibility not only to protect it, but to revel in it.

Whether that means a wilderness float down the Snake through the River of No Return, a morning's birding in a Low Country marsh, looking for desert bighorns along the Gila, the dawn hatch on an Adirondack stream or a stroll through Rock Creek in D.C. with the sound of the Beltway in the distance, the wild is there, and we owe it to ourselves to partake.