Why do the Great Lakes matter?
The Great Lakes – the largest group of freshwater lakes on Earth – are true wonders of the world. An important part of the physical landscape and cultural heritage of North America, the Great Lakes hold 95 percent of the United States’ surface fresh water. Shared with Canada, these “freshwater seas” boast more than 10,000 miles of magnificent coastline and 30,000 islands and provide drinking water, transportation, power and a wide array of recreational opportunities. The region’s four-season climate, uniquely influenced by the Great Lakes, supports boating, fishing, diving, beach enjoyment and other forms of recreation that support the region’s proud outdoor heritage.
If the Great Lakes region were its own nation, it would house the largest economy second only to the United States itself, providing transportation for raw materials and finished goods; fresh water for our industries; drinking water for our communities; and recreation for the basin’s more than 30 million citizens. The 4.3 million recreational boats registered in the eight Great Lakes states generate nearly $16 billion in spending on boats and boating activities in a single year. That spending directly supports 107,000 jobs, a figure that grows to nearly 250,000 when secondary impacts are taken into consideration.
What is wrong with the Great Lakes?
The Great Lakes impact our way of life, as well as all aspects of the natural environment, from weather and climate to wildlife and habitat. Yet for all their size and power, the Great Lakes are not as resilient as they look. In the past, their fragile nature was not recognized and the lakes were mistreated for economic gain, placing the ecosystem under tremendous stress from our activities. Today, we understand that our health and our children’s future depend on our collective efforts to wisely manage this complex ecosystem.
History has shown us that the Great Lakes are highly sensitive to biological and chemical stresses. While restoration progress has been made through years of concerted effort and expenditures on the part of federal, state, tribal and local governments and other stakeholders, that progress is slowing or even reversing. The Great Lakes face a number of serious challenges. The most significant of these include toxic substances, invasive species, nonpoint source pollution and nearshore impacts, habitat and species loss, and a need for better information to guide decision making.
What is restoration?
Restoration is the process of assisting the recovery of an ecosystem that has been degraded, damaged or destroyed. For purposes of GLRI, restoration includes ecosystem protection, enhancement, rehabilitation and remediation. Restoration is not the attempt to change the ecosystem to pre-European settlement conditions; however, a restored ecosystem does attempt to emulate those conditions to the extent possible under present-day chemical, physical and biological conditions.
What about prevention?
Restoration of degraded, damaged or destroyed water and lands is more costly than protection of resources before damage occurs. Therefore, GLRI recognizes the wisdom of supporting ecological protection. Protection is defined as actions taken to prevent stress to ecosystems. Actions include the establishment of partnerships to manage and monitor habitats and species; construction of physical barriers to prevent damage to sensitive areas; implementing best management practices to protect ecosystems; and acquisition of land and protection agreements such as easements. GLRI acknowledges that land acquisitions and protection agreements alone will not protect ecosystems from threats such as invasive species, encroaching development, or airborne toxic pollutants. Acquisition and protection agreements must be accompanied by appropriate stewardship and management actions.
Adapted from the GLRI Action Plan, pp.6-9.