Celebrating ‘the little things’ this Earth Day
DNR?outlines environmental challenges, achievements
Envision standing under a forest canopy of countless leaves, hiking through a field spangled with native wildflowers, digging your toes into the sand of a Great Lakes beach or watching colorful warblers as they flit through your backyard.
Although we often think of ourselves as going “into” and “away from” nature, there’s a fundamental shift in perspective when we consider the fact that we are nature. We can shape the world around us.
Earth Day is today, April 22, which each year commemorates the anniversary of the modern environmental movement’s birth in 1970.
For the past 100 years, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources has stewarded the conservation of our state’s natural resources. It has protected the environment with its sister agency, the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy.
Today, staffers continue to find ways to restore native species, produce clean energy, manage forests to lock up carbon and take steps to prevent the introduction of invasive carp to the Great Lakes.
Staff is partnering with communities to help stop the advance of invasive species, plan virtual 5K races to plant trees and update facilities to save funds and fuel.
However, challenges remain.
Climate change and the Great Lakes
The Great Lakes are the largest freshwater system in the world and hold more than 20% of Earth’s fresh water supply.
Between 1999 and 2014, the lakes experienced the longest period of low water levels in recorded history — to the point that some worried about the lakes disappearing. But since 2014, the Great Lakes have been experiencing record high water levels.
Scientists agree that these swings between high and low water levels are being driven by climate change. Erosion from high water has affected shorelines, roads, beaches, rivers and more.
Microplastics that are too small to be filtered through water treatment facilities end up washing out to the lakes and into the drinking water supply. These microplastics are also mistaken as food by animal species.
Washing synthetic clothing is the largest source of microplastics in aquatic environments and watersheds. Illegal dumping of garbage contaminates the environment and vehicle exhaust has increased air pollution.
Swapping synthetic materials for natural fibers, cleaning up dump sites and choosing more eco-friendly travel alternatives when available combat climate change.
Advances on energy and carbon
“In our buildings, we’re replacing inefficient heating systems, switching to LED lighting and adding insulation for energy savings,” said Sharon Conley, facilities and equipment coordinator for the DNR’s Forest Resources Division.
The DNR is also using mass timber — an emerging, sustainable construction material — for its new DNR customer service center and field offices in Newberry.
The DNR is initiating pilot projects to generate carbon offset credits from state forest lands and establishing large-scale solar arrays on former mineral development sites unsuitable for other uses.
In 2020, the DNR awarded a contract for solar power development at the Oden State Fish Hatchery in Emmet County to reduce energy costs and greenhouse gas emissions.
Threats beneath the surface
“Invisible” contaminants like mercury, PCBs and PFAS are more difficult to deal with than more obvious pollution like trash and have negative effects.
Much of the work to combat environmental threats happens through remediation and cleanup programs administered by the EGLE.
Michigan started with 14 contaminated Areas of Concern in the 1980s, designated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under the binational Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. Through community partnerships and Great Lakes Restoration Initiative funding, these parts of the Great Lakes system with human-caused environmental problems have seen progress; three sites are now fully restored.
One major project to combat threats to the Great Lakes saw a big step forward this year. The invasive carp prevention project at the Brandon Road Lock and Dam in Illinois is an ambitious effort with plans to use layered technologies to prevent the movement of invasive carp.
Invasive carp are prevalent in the Mississippi River, which connects to Lake Michigan via the Chicago Area Waterway System. With no native predators and especially voracious appetites, invasive carp would push out native species, dramatically affecting the lakes’ ecosystems and disrupting major food sources for many people who depend on fish from the lakes.
The presence of these species would also have a drastic effect on the region’s $7 billion fishery, $16 billion boating industry and other tourism-based industries, property owners, recreationists and others.
Digital platforms like eBird and iNaturalist help researchers and natural resource managers learn more about wildlife behavior and the impacts of development and climate change.
From monitoring osprey nests and counting the songs of rare birds to reporting sightings of amphibians and reptiles, community members keep track of these species’ populations. This data is a critical part of the DNR’s Wildlife Action Plan.
Community science is especially valuable in the effort to prevent and protect against invasive species. Community reports of the tiny, tree-killing hemlock woolly adelgid, for example, allow forest health staffers to inoculate hemlock trees to prevent tree loss.
A call about the barbed, invasive “mile-a-minute weed,” named for its incredibly fast growth and potential to overwhelm native plants, enabled conservation groups to find it and begin management actions to prevent further spread.
The road to recovery
For many, it’s hard to imagine a time when white-tailed deer weren’t prevalent in southern Michigan, or when wild turkey and giant Canada geese were rare — when the waters were so polluted that the Rouge River caught fire and Lake Erie’s beaches were closed to swimming.
Al Stewart, who just retired after a 50-year career with the DNR, doesn’t have to imagine.
“In the ’70s and on, there were many animals of scarcity. The Kirtland’s warbler was almost extinct. Elk were declining due to poaching,” Stewart said. “Osprey in Michigan were just satellite populations; they never really blossomed.”
Stewart wrote the original southern Michigan osprey restoration plan, which has come to fruition. Other notable comebacks are wild turkeys and elk, which were both extinct locally before being reintroduced to the state by DNR wildlife biologists, and the Kirtland’s warbler in northern lower Michigan’s jack pine forests.
Native pollinator populations are plummeting due to habitat loss, pesticide use, disease and climate change. One way to lend a hand is to plant a pollinator garden or add native plants and trees to your landscaping.
The monarch and other, lesser-known plants and animals, like many salamanders, insects and Great Lakes mussels, are also in peril. The Michigan Natural Features Inventory maintains lists of plant and animal species of concern.
Making the outdoors welcoming
When the COVID-19 pandemic first hit, the outdoors became a safe place to get outside while maintaining social distance. Hunting and fishing license sales skyrocketed during 2020, and so did attendance at all 103 state parks. With many newcomers to these areas, it’s important to recreate responsibly, be courteous to others and ensure everyone has the chance to enjoy these places and activities.
The best thing you can do to protect the outdoors and make outdoor spaces welcoming to all is to inspire a passion for nature in someone else.
The earth is for everyone
All species rely on delicately balanced ecosystems. With human-driven impacts, many of those systems have been thrown out of equilibrium.
People who care about nature and the outdoors pick up trash when they hike, bring reusable bags to the grocery store or have a backyard compost pile turning scraps into rich soil.
Though sometimes it may not feel like each of us can make a difference, even small changes can have a huge impact.
This Earth Day, be an advocate for our natural spaces and species and inspire action in your community.