TOLEDO — There was no one among the almost 400 people gathered in Toledo last week who was not interested in restoring the health of the Great Lakes.
They spent the day listening to each other talk about the conservation programs and sharing ideas on a series of conservation topics.
The question at the end of the day, however, was still whether all the disparate interests represented at this symposium could bring themselves together to speak for the Great Lakes region in a single, clarion voice.
“Great Lakes 2000, a Symposium on the Health of the Great Lakes” was convened in Toledo May 31 by U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Toledo, with assistance from the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.
The symposium was what each of the many speakers termed “an historic occasion.”
It was a gathering of representatives from government and private programs who are working on Great Lakes issues on the national, regional, state and local levels.Participants came from Ohio, New York, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois and Indiana. They represented everything from the Environmental Protection Agency to the USDA, and from urban stormwater specialists to Indian tribes.
Kaptur charged them with a formidable task: Arrive at a common agenda that is “understandable to Congress.”
“What we need, if Congress is going to be of assistance,” she said, “is a common agenda, a program that we can focus on and understand.”
Legislators primarily see a variety of individuals, she said, each of whom represents some piece of the puzzle.
“But there has been no wholeness to the message we have received. You have to coordinate your knowledge and vision in a way that we can understand.
“If you can do that, you will do more to promote the Great Lakes than any generation has done before you.”
Kaptur said later that in order to make progress, there has to be a realistic agenda to take conservation programs for the nation’s land and waterways into the 21st century.
She said she hoped bringing people with different interests together to talk about their common goals might foster the development of that agenda.
The best outcome from the symposium, she said, would be a report that would outline those goals and the programs that would be necessary to achieve them in both the near and the long term.
While it was suggested from the floor by Steve Goldman, professor at the University of Toledo, that those present form themselves into committees to work toward that agenda, the momentum to carry through never materialized.
Richard Rominger, U.S. deputy secretary of agriculture, told participants that the occasion was one more conversation in a continuing dialogue on the long-term health of the nation.
“Sustaining land management,” he said, “has become everybody’s business.”
What is necessary now, he emphasized, is to help private landowners strengthen their own stewardship of the land.
It’s essential to get all farmers and ranchers to recognize their land for what it is, a valuable commodity in its own right and not a tool, and to understand that economics and environmental conservation go hand in hand, Rominger said.
“Our largest export in this country is still our farms,” he said. “More soil is lost each year than the total agricultural exports to other countries.”
And if there was a theme to what was being presented at the symposium, it was that conservation is very much a local issue, that land and water will be conserved and protected one piece at a time, and that the role of government programs should be to provide tools and assistance to make that possible.
According to Jim Lyons, undersecretary of agriculture for natural resources and environment, the future thrust of USDA programs will be local.
“We will be supporting the watershed approach to conservation efforts,” he said, “and hope to influence an improvement in all levels in the watersheds.”
Partnerships. It is in local and regional, public and private partnerships that the real work of conservation is being accomplished, Lyons said.
He cited work that is being done in the Chesapeake Bay and Puget Sound and in Long Island as examples of what can be done on a regional basis.
Other voices added to the symposium mix included Gary Mast, a Holmes County farmer representing the National Association of Conservation Districts; Heather Potter, representing the Nature Conservancy’s Great Lakes program; Jean Buffalo-Reyes, representing the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa in Wisconsin; Paula Smith, a stormwater specialist from Rochester, N.Y.; and Will Allen, who volunteers his services as a small farmer outside Milwaukee, Wis., as a provider of produce to food programs and as an urban farm educator.
Success stories were relayed from the Grand River Watershed Project in Ohio, from the Saint Joseph River Watershed Initiative in Indiana, from the Saginaw Bay Watershed in Michigan, from the Nemadju River and Miller Creek in Minnesota, from the Sullivan Trail grazing land initiative in New York, and from the Headwaters Park project in Erie County, Pa.
And finally, there were group discussions in which ideas were generated in the hope of distilling some distinct priorities and initiatives.
Discussion groups included production agriculture; urban conservation; fish and wildlife; farmland preservation; water quality and agriculture; water quality and the Total Maximum Daily Load approach; and the watershed approach to conservation.
A report on the symposium is being compiled by the Midwest Regional Office of NRCS in Madison, Wis., which was involved in organizing the symposium.