Paying more for landfill might help recycling

Capital News Service

LANSING — A proposal to increase the cost of putting waste into landfills would produce an estimated $79 million annually for environmental initiatives.

The proposal was presented by Gov. Rick Snyder in late January and is pending in the House Environmental Committee.

Part of the proposal would allocate $15 million to support community recycling efforts. That would include $8 million for local recycling grants, $5 million for planning grants and $2 million for market development.

Michigan has one of the lowest recycling rates in the nation at 14 percent and throws away $368 million in reusable materials annually, according to a Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) study. A recycling rate is the percentage of total waste that’s recycled rather than thrown away.

The DEQ now provides about $500,000 in grants to local recycling programs annually. Municipalities or other government agencies must match the state funding to be considered for the grant.

“Recycling grants can go to whatever makes the most sense for the community,” said Steve Sliver, the assistant director of the DEQ Waste Management Division.

“Good policy, planning dollars and grant funding are the keys to a good recycling program,” Elisa Seltzer, the director of the Emmet County Department of Public Works and Recycling, said.

Seltzer was hired to start the Emmet County recycling program in 1990. The program has received initial state aid for planning and infrastructure development, along with grants for expansion and education over the years.

“The upfront costs could mean hiring a consultant, staff person or paying committee members to work on how to increase recycling in a rural community such as ours,” Seltzer said. “We wanted recycling to be convenient, comprehensive and cost-effective.”

The county now has one of the highest recycling rates in the state at 42 percent, Seltzer said. There is currently no requirement for counties to report their recycling rates to the state, but the governor’s proposal would add that mandate.

Emmet County uses a combination of curbside pickup and community drop-off locations. The goal is that everyone has access to a recycling location within 6 miles of their home. A pay- as-you-throw policy that charges residents for dumping landfill but not recycling incentivizes making the trip, Seltzer said.

The county has a material recovery facility, which sorts and processes the recyclable materials to then be sold to manufacturers. The facility also receives material from Presque Isle, Cheboygan and Otsego counties.

“Sometimes we wind up covering the cost of the processing,” Seltzer said.

“Typically it is easier to be more cost-effective and efficient providing services in an urban environment because everything is more dense and you have more demographics with which to divide any upfront costs,” she said.

Communities attempting to expand or begin a recycling program have made more grant requests than the state has been able to fund during the past three years.

“In 2015, we had $635,000 in recycling grant funding available,” said DEQ recycling specialist Emily Freeman, “and received $3.9 million in grant requests.”

By focusing on smaller projects and working with communities to partially fund programs, the DEQ was able to help 25 entities in 2017, Freeman said. Despite those efforts, nine entities and a quarter of a million dollars in requests went unfunded.

The DEQ has has not been able to assess all grant applications for 2018, but estimates that there are $600,000 in requests.

A statewide recycling rate increase poses logistical questions for recycling programs.

Sliver said, “If Michigan actually doubled or tripled its current recycling rate, we do not have the capacity with our current material recovery facilities.

“There may be plenty of capacity in some parts of the state and none in others,” Sliver said. “Do you truck the material for a longer distance to a facility that has capacity, or does it make more sense to establish a new facility?”

Recycling in the state “employs 93,000 people, $5.7 billion in annual labor income, and creates $24.3 billion in economic input,” said Kerrin O’Brien, the executive director of the Michigan Recycling Coalition.

Meaure seeks to prevent potato diseases

Capital News Service

LANSING – Farmers with more than an acre of seed potatoes would face new requirements under a bill passed by the Senate and House: to plant only certified seed potatoes.

The intent is to reduce the possible spread of diseases that could have a major economic impact on the state’s agricultural industry, supporters say.

Michigan ranks ninth among the states in potato production with 47,000 acres planted, according to the Michigan Potato Industry Commission. The crop contributes $178 million annually to the state’s economy.

Montcalm, Mecosta, Antrim, St. Joseph and Delta counties are among the top producers in the state, said Mike Wenkel, the executive director of the commission.

In Michigan, 70 percent go into potato chips. Michigan potatoes fill one of every four bags of chips in the country, according to the National Potato Council.

Rep. Roger Victory, R- Hudsonville, the main sponsor of the bill, said Michigan is one of the only potato-producing states that doesn’t currently have a certified potato seed law.

“It is crucial that we take proactive steps to safeguard the industry’s continued success,” Victory said. “This legislation is very similar to regulations found in other potato-producing states.”

The bill is the result of many years of work and collaboration with the industry advocacy group Potato Growers of Michigan and the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, he said.

Among the co-sponsors are Reps. Jim Lower, R-Cedar Lake; Dave Pagel, R-Berrien Springs; Aaron Miller, R-Sherman Township; Triston Cole, R-Mancelona; and David LaGrand, D-Grand Rapids.

Chris Long, a potato specialist at Michigan State University, said that virus accumulation in potato seed is detrimental to healthy crop production, and other bacterial and fungal pathogens including late blight are also of great concern.

“The bill is a good thing,” Long said. “The certified seed law would better regulate seed that is at a higher risk to the potato industry and prevent it from ever being planted.”

Wenkel said, “Michigan potato growers are also working to manage disease, insects and other pests that can damage the crop. This includes many possible impacts on the seed during the growing season and the storage of the crop.”

Wenkel said potato seed is different from most types of seed used in producing food because it’s  a piece of potato that will grow into a new plant when placed in the ground. “Since they are living tissue, they can easily harbor disease and pests from one year to the next.”

“Through seed certification, many of the diseases are monitored during seed production and provided to the buyers to assist them in managing these diseases,” he said. “Our goal in supporting this legislation is to protect our industry and our reputation for growing quality potatoes from being impacted by diseases.”

The percentage of potatoes planted now using certified seed is unknown. “Today growers can use anything as seed,” Wenkel said, “although it is believed that most seed planted is certified.”

The bill would require potato growers to plant certified potatoes and allow exemptions only  under special conditions.

It also would allow a grower to secure an annual exemption if certified seed isn’t available. “The annual exemption is a critical component of the bill to ensure that no grower would be impacted in growing a crop for a season,” Wenkel said.

Victory said that the bill also provides a special  exemption for small potatoes and for individuals who plant and distribute less than an acre of seed potatoes, such as hobby farms.

John Marker, the owner and operator of Marker Farms in Elmira grows seed potatoes.

The legislation wouldn’t have a negative impact on his farm, he said. “All the seeds my farm uses are certified.”

“The bill is more directed towards the commercial growers in the state,” Marker said. “When they are replanting potatoes, they do not go through an inspection process” and could be replanting diseased potatoes.

Marker said the proposal, if signed, would reduce the risks to the industry and to other growers who are trying to do things correctly by planting clean seed.

The bill is awaiting the governor’s signature.


Drink up? Depends on where you live

Capital News Service

LANSING – If you’re thinking of moving in Michigan and worry about water quality, finding the perfect area might be harder than you think.

Because of  a wide variety of contaminants, pinpointing one area that has the cleanest drinking water or the worst drinking water isn’t an easy task.  

“It’s hard to say where the most issues are. There are different issues in different communities around the state,” said Sean McBrearty, a program organizer at Clean Water Action, an advocacy group..

Lead receives the most headlines but Michigan’s main drinking water contaminants include arsenic, nitrate, volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and lead.

Some areas are affected worse than others, but overall, Lansing has no worries about lead and Northern Michigan enjoys fairly clean water, according to the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ).

One of the biggest problems facing almost the entire state is the crumbling infrastructure, McBrearty said. “Michigan has more lead service lines than almost any other state.”

With around 460,000 lead service lines, many local governments are scrambling to find the money to replace them.

According to McBrearty, the only area where all lead pipes have been removed is Lansing. The Lansing Board of Water and Light finished replacing all of them in 2016.

Lansing and  Madison, Wisconsin, are the only two cities in the country to replace all of their lead service lines, according the the Board of Water and Light.

Because of the makeup of Michigan’s landscape, the state tends to have naturally higher arsenic levels in the groundwater. Arsenic is found in some bedrock, sand, gravel and soil when it’s dissolved by and absorbed into drinking water.

Some areas with the highest rate of arsenic contamination are Bad Axe, Lapeer  and southeast Genesee County. The cleanest counties include Mason, Manistee, Alpena and Mackinac.

Unlike arsenic, problems with VOCs are generally caused by human activity such as the release of industrial solvents, fuel and chemical spills, and illegal disposal of waste products. VOC levels are also much lower in the northern parts of the state than in southern Michigan, according to the DEQ.

Areas with the most VOC problems include Jackson, Battle Creek, Portage and Muskegon. DEQ data shows counties with the least problems include Montmorency, Luce, Baraga, Iron and Keweenaw.

In contrast, nitrate levels have a pattern that follows east and west, not just north and south. High levels tend to be found in West Michigan, focused on the southern and middle parts of the Lower Peninsula.

These contaminants come from livestock waste, septic tanks and drainfields, crop and lawn fertilizers, municipal wastewater sludge and natural sources, according to the DEQ.

The counties with the most serious nitrate problems include Cass, St. Joseph, Branch, Montcalm and Oceana. The east side of the state, particularly the Thumb, and the Upper Peninsula have lesser rates of nitrate contamination.

Another major factor whether the water is being pulled from the Great Lakes or from groundwater sources. Because the Great Lakes are so large, understanding the quality of the water is much easier and results in fewer  problems, according to James Clift, the policy director at the Michigan Environmental Council.

With groundwater, people need to be more wary of possible contaminants and localized threats, Clift said.

The Great Lakes Water Authority in Southeast Michigan gets most of its water from Lake Huron or the Detroit River. However, the region it serves has the most lead service lines in the state to deal with, Clift said.

Those who get their water from private wells need to be far more wary than those on municipal water, according to Clift, so it’s important to test well water not only when moving but also every two to three years.

County health departments can test for most common contaminants. For the consumer, strange smell and taste are indicators that something is wrong, Clift said.

McBrearty of Clean Water Action said some contaminants that are far harder to examine include perfluorooctane sulfonate, a VOC that’s been discovered in about 15 areas in Michigan.

“The science is not complete on how dangerous it is for human health,” McBrearty said. Only a handful of labs in the country can test for it, but the expensive testing is typically funded by the organization or company that caused the damage.

According to Clift, Michigan is working toward having its own means of testing for such contaminants.

Push underway to designate national water trails for Flint, Shiawassee Rivers


LANSING — Three years after the Flint River starred in an international horror story where cost-cutting measures led to toxic drinking water, state lawmakers are backing an effort to give it national recognition as a water trail.

The decision is up to the National Park Service.

National Park Service designation of a national water trail means the 73-mile river will likely draw more visitors and businesses, said Rebecca Fedewa, the executive director of the Flint River Watershed Coalition.

Meanwhile, the Shiawassee River Water Trail Coalition has submitted a similar application for designation for that 88-mile waterway between Chesaning and Holly.

The Flint River is a principal tributary of the Shiawassee, which flows into the Saginaw River and Saginaw Bay.

The state House has passed a resolution supporting designation for both rivers, and a resolution is pending in the Senate Outdoor Recreation and Tourism Committee. The lead sponsors are Sen. Jim Ananich, D-Flint, and Rep. Ben Frederick, R-Owosso.

Resolutions are expressions of legislative sentiment but have no legal effect.

The Flint River “is home to bald eagles, ospreys, frogs, turtles, muskrats and a wide variety of fish. Used as a main method of transportation for Native Americans and early European settlers and later supporting the city of Flint as a major hub for fur-trading, lumber milling, and agriculture, the river has a rich cultural history,” the legislative resolution says.

The Huron River is a model for the Flint River group because it’s seen more visitors since its federal designation as a water trail in 2015, said Elizabeth Riggs, the deputy director of the Huron River Watershed Council.

“We are also seeing that they are coming from a wider variety of demographics,” she said. “Designation makes the route more of a destination.”

More people traveling to an area means more economic activity for local businesses, Riggs said.

Huron River visitors bring in $53.5 million each year, according to the Economic Impact of the Huron River.

“A national water trail designation can be used to promote recreation and tourism, enhancing economic benefits for communities. The program also opens opportunities to access technical assistance and funding for planning and implementing water trail projects and improving existing river water trails,” the resolutions say.

Water trails are like other park trails with multiple access points, mile markers and directions, but along a river, said Tom Cook, who heads Friends of the Shiawassee River.
He said Shiawassee River enthusiasts applied for national water trail status in hopes that it will create a sense of pride about that river, Cook said.

“The designation was a tool to bring our community together,” he said. “We hope that it brings the appropriate recognition of the work we have done and will continue do.”

The application process has brought together three service groups and 11 governmental organizations with responsibilities ranging from keeping the Shiawassee River clean to mapping out trail activities, Cook said.

The designations are in the final stages of review by the National Park Service, said Barbara Nelson-Jameson, who is the Michigan programs coordinator for the federal agency.

Fedewa said, “Getting the approval from the (state) House was definitely a surprise. To see them taking that on was very special and really reaffirms everything that we have been working on.”

Lizzy LaFavre writes for Great Lakes Echo.

Making Tracks for four decades

Capital News Service

LANSING — If you grew up in Michigan, might remember reading the wildlife magazine Tracks in your elementary school classroom.

Supported and written by the Michigan United Conservation Clubs (MUCC), the magazine has taught children in and outside the classroom about local wildlife and ecosystems for 40 years.

That’s long enough for editors to see the lifelong impact their work has on its readers, said Tyler Butler, the Michigan Out-of-Doors Youth Camp director, as well as half of the Tracks creative team.

“It’s a wild experience coming across parents who remember reading the publication when they were a child,” Butler said. “Often, these parents have grown into outdoor enthusiasts and natural resource conscious adults that get a reminder of their childhood when they hold one of our publications in their hands.”

Butler and Shaun McKeon, the group’s educational coordinator, create content that meets Michigan’s science education standards. Occasionally they introduce young readers to native animals they may not even know exist.

“We are happy to introduce new and unfamiliar species to our readers and even happier when our readers declare that they now have a new favorite animal,” Butler said.

Their goal is to educate children about natural resources and the Great Lakes region’s wildlife. Each issue contains a quiz and classroom activity to bring the reading to life.

“As time has gone on and kids have gotten used to different types of media, we have had to adjust the magazine,” McKeon said.

Over the years, the magazine’s style has changed to captivate young minds by including more graphics and changing from a newspaper format to a storytelling format. As a print publication, Tracks can be used to improve reading comprehension and engage kids in school districts that might not be completely digital.

The outdoor group also offers a six-day, five-night summer camp to introduce a love for the outdoors to Michigan kids.

Since 1946, MUCC has helped more than 50,000 kids learn about nature and conservation. They camp, fish, canoe, swim, hike and learn about forestry, wildlife identification and archery. Campers can also earn hunter education certificates and learn conservation practices.

The magazine can be found in elementary classrooms all over the United States and is available for an individual subscription.

Jacqueline Kelly writes for Great Lakes Echo.

Farmers concerned about air emission reporting requirement

Capital News Service

LANSING – Farmers in the state may soon be required to report air emissions from their livestock, a federal requirement that had exempted them in the past.

“It’s just a requirement for reporting for purposes of tracking,” said Laura Campbell, the manager of the Agricultural Ecology Department at the Michigan Farm Bureau. “This is a requirement with no useful purpose.”

The change is due to a recent U.S. Court of Appeals ruling  in Washington, D.C.

Previously, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) exempted farms from reporting hazardous substance air releases caused by animal waste. Only large concentrated animal feeding operations were subject to reporting under a related law.

Because the court ruling struck down the exemption, farms, ranches, livestock operations and animal operations, will be required to report releases of hazardous substances that exceed threshold limits.

According to the EPA, agriculture contributes 9 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. Among them, methane from normal digestive processes of livestock represents almost one-third of the emissions, and manure management accounts for about 15 percent.

No one knows how many farms will fall under the requirement, Campbell said.

“The requirement depends on how much ammonia or hydrogen sulfide the manure on a farm might emit,” she said. “Confinement, pasture, all sizes of operations will have to review their farms to try to figure out whether they would estimate that their emissions meet the threshold.”

The threshold for ammonia or hydrogen sulfide from a farm is 100 lbs within a 24-hour period, according to EPA.

However, no reliable way exists to measure air emissions from any type of farm, “whether a livestock barn, manure storage structure, feedlot, pasture or any other type of (animal) housing,” Campbell said.

The EPA has recommended a few calculators that farmers can use to estimate their emissions, but she said estimates are likely to be questioned because there is no way to scientifically verify them.

According to Campbell, the Farm Bureau has been working with Michigan State University Extension, the Department of Environmental Quality, the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development and other partners to get out information on how farms can comply.

Gary Voogt, the owner of Voogt Farms, a beef cattle farm in Marne, Ottawa County, said it will be a paperwork burden if farms have to report air emissions.

He said when farmers have to do “foolish things” that have nothing to do with raising livestock, “it passes onto the consumer, and the cost of food goes up and poor people can’t afford to eat.”

Campbell said there would be a “significant financial penalty if farmers don’t comply” with the requirement.

Beyond that, reporting would present a risk to their privacy, she said.

“Farm information submitted under most regulatory programs has some level of protection from release to the public,” Campbell said. But, under the federal Superfund law, “that information can’t be held private because the entire reason for the act is to provide that information to the public and emergency managers for response.

“Therefore, farm and farming family information would become public. There are many activist groups who want information about livestock farms specifically because they want to harass, demonize or find other ways to eliminate livestock farms,” she said.

Tom Zimnicki, the agriculture policy director of the Michigan Environmental Council, said it’s essential to be able to track air emissions from all major sources that contribute to pollution, whether that be agriculture, transportation or other industry.

“Our hope is that both state and federal policy recognizes the impact these livestock operations, especially the large ones, have on air quality and address air pollution issues accordingly,” he said.

“I do not think the new air emission reporting requirements will result in any new standards to limit emissions from agriculture,” Zimnicki said. “To my knowledge it is only a reporting requirement.”

A bill recently introduced in the U.S. Senate would exempt farms from reporting air emissions. Neither of Michigan’s senators, Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, or Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, are co-sponsors.

Campbell said the Farm Bureau supports the proposal which is pending in the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

The organization says the new requirements won’t result in any benefits.

“This act has nothing to do with increasing protection of the environment,” Campbell said. “The best approach for helping farms do the best they can do for protecting air quality will come from university and Extension research under the kind of conditions that can be measured.”

That, in turn,  will allow them to make recommendations to use for state standards, she said.

According to the EPA, farms won’t be required to submit reports until the appeals court issues its order eliminating the exemptions on May 1.

More farmers may lease land for solar projects

Capital News Service

LANSING – As solar energy soars in popularity in Michigan, solar leasing has become a  profitable option for farm owners.

Under agreements with private solar developers, farmers can earn rental payments varying from $500 to $2,000 per acre per year, said Charles Gould, the bioenergy & agricultural energy conservation educator at Michigan State University Extension.

“That’s considerably more than what they would be making from growing crops, grains and corn,” Gould said. “The current market price for those commodities doesn’t approach $1,000  an acre.”

However, owners need to give up use of that land in exchange for signing up, he said. “The lease agreement can be up to 25 to 30 years, so that land is no longer in production.”

The installation of solar energy generation on farmland should follow local master plans and zoning ordinances, according to MSU Extension. A master plan makes sure the land is suitable for the scale a of solar project and zoning ordinances set the legal standards for site selection.

Michigan gets about one-quarter of its electricity from renewable sources, including solar, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

It’s hard to predict whether a solar lease undermines the value of farmland, said Matthew Kapp, the government relations specialist at the Michigan Farm Bureau.

“There are many variables that contribute to value. Variables such as market conditions, location, soil type, as well as land use, all play a role in determining farmland value,” Kapp said.

“Each farmer needs to evaluate what’s the best use for their land,” he said. “Some farmers would say solar energy is a positive and some would say it’s a negative, depending on their own perspective.”

To some extent, taking land out of agricultural use will reduce production, said Richard Harlow, the manager of the Farmland Preservation Program at the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development.

The program aims at preserving farmland for agriculture. It provides tax benefits and exemptions from various special assessments, according to the department.

Harlow said, “Farm owners in the program are not permitted to put solar panels on the farmland.”

Michigan has 3.3 million of its 10 million acres of farmland in the preservation program, he said. “Renewable energy is good, but we are not making any new farmland and we need to preserve the farmland we have.”

Agricultural solar energy development is still in the early stage, said Charlotte Jameson, the director of energy policy and legislative affairs at the Michigan Environmental Council.

“We are not really at the point that we were need to worry about overuse of farmland and solar,” Jameson said.

Jameson suggested redeveloping brownfield sites — abandoned and contaminated industrial sites — for solar projects.

In Michigan, the price of solar panels and related equipment declined 55 percent over last five years.

Solar energy production in the state grew from 5.7 megawatts in 2016 to 107 megawatts in 2017, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.

However, it produces only 0.1 percent of the state’s electricity.

Traverse City opened its M-72 solar project last October with the intent to power 100 percent of city operations with renewable energy by 2020.

The project is a collaboration among the city, its municipally-owned utility and Heritage Sustainable Energy, a private company.

It is under a solar lease agreement on former farmland.

“This year the city will continue to focus on energy efficiency measures — building by building — and also work with Traverse City Light & Power on additional opportunities to procure renewable energy,” said Sarna Salzman, a member of the Grand Traverse County Planning Commission.

Potholes plague road agencies, drivers

Capital News Service

LANSING —  If you’ve driven in Michigan within the last few weeks, there’s a decent chance you’ve seen a pothole. Actually, lots of potholes.

With the rise in temperatures and the heavy rain that has drenched the state, frozen roads are warming up, snow is melting and riverbeds are overflowing onto roads and sidewalks.

This is a huge concern for motorists and county road agencies statewide as roads with potholes proliferate.

“When the roads start thawing, particularly with the amount of rain that happened, that’s the time in which the roads are most vulnerable,” said Denise Donohue, director of the County Road Association of Michigan.

“Frost under the road can be as deep as 2 feet, it can be 3 feet deep,” Donohue said. “And so, as you can imagine, the top thaws out first because the water leaks through the existing potholes first. And so the soil right under the road right now is muddy, it’s damp.”

When heavy trucks drive, they pound the concrete against the “spongy” part under the road. The soil is still frozen, so water can’t drain away and sits in the “spongy” section, she said. “It doesn’t give much support to the asphalt, so that is where the damage occurs.”

As of Feb. 23, 47 of the state’s 83 counties have activated full or partial seasonal weight restrictions to preserve designated roads with axle-loading limits and slower maximum speeds.

Zach Russell, the communications administrator for the Ottawa County Road Commission, said that over the last few days, the number of reports the agency has received has forced the road commission’s supervisors to focus solely on potholes.

Despite the amount of resources being put into road repair, Russell said it’s difficult r to compare this season to previous ones because of the uncertainty of what March will hold.

“If March has a lot more thawing and freezing, it can cause problems, too. Even if it’s not more extreme weather than we’ve had in past years,” he said, roads are getting close to the end of their usable life..

Officials in some counties, however, are bracing for this season to be worse than normal.

“This is due to the extreme temperature swings from December to now and the high levels of moisture,” said Emily Kizer, the communications coordinator for the Washtenaw County Road Commission. “The good news: We are slowly making progress in resurfacing roads that have been underinvested in for years.”

During weeks when road problems are at a high, Kizer said Washtenaw County deploys six to eight pothole crews to tend to its roads.

“These crews are focused on different sections of paved roads, some are working on the highways and others on more rural paved roads,” she said. “They load their trucks up with cold patch, the temporary asphalt product that can be applied cold.”

According to Cindy Dingell, the public information manager for the Road Commission for Oakland County, the rapid fluctuation in temperatures have made this season unusual.

“The rapid change from freeze to thaw combined with torrential rain over the past several days has played havoc on the roads,” she said. “We are also dealing with decades of underfunding roads in Michigan which has really hampered the true cure to potholes which is reconstructing some of the worst roads.”

Dingell said that the county’s last count of pothole reports was just over 900 so far this year,  slightly higher than last year.

The Lapeer County Road Commission’s board secretary, Linette Weston, said the state’s lack of funding for transportation infrastructure is a challenge all counties face in combating potholes and other maintenance problems.

“It is a fact that we spend less per mile on road repairs than neighboring states,” she said. “Unfortunately, the funding has lacked for so long that the repairs that need to be made now are exorbitant.”

Weston advises motorists to stay alert.  

“Expect delays and defects as you make your commute. Also be aware that road workers will also be out working to fill the holes and they need space to do their job safely,” she said.

Piping plovers rebound on Great Lakes shores

Capital News Service

LANSING — Piping plover advocates are looking to capitalize on the bird’s record-setting success last year by expanding habitat restoration efforts.

Piping plover nests were found on the shores of all five Great Lakes last year for the first time since 1955.

The shore-dwelling bird disappeared from most of the Great Lakes in the 1980s and was listed as endangered in 1986, said Vince Cavalieri, the Great Lakes piping plover recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

At one point, up to 600 pairs nested throughout the Great Lakes. In 1990, only 12 pairs remained.

Once found on sandy beaches from Wisconsin to Pennsylvania, most survivors clustered around Sleeping Bear Dunes on Lake Michigan’s northwest shore.

But with the discovery of a nesting pair in Pennsylvania’s Presque Isle State Park last year — the first to take up residence on Lake Erie for 60 years–the winds have changed. Researchers found 76 nesting pairs throughout the region in 2017.

“Finally the last two or three years we’re starting to see bigger numbers in Ontario, in Wisconsin,” Cavalieri said. “We’ve got nesting in Illinois now.”

There’s a new call to restore and protect plover habitats–and the Huron-Manistee National Forest’s Lake Michigan shoreline is one location under consideration.

A stretch of that shoreline at Ludington State Park has been an excellent spot for plovers, hosting eight nesting pairs in the past, Cavalieri said.

They’ve declined in the last four years, however, and only one pair remained last summer. Higher water levels have swallowed up stretches of the beach and  predators like the merlin, a native falcon, have attacked nests.

Advocates have focused on protecting piping plover nests, said Christie DeLoria, the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Great Lakes coastal program coordinator. That’s done mainly by placing wire cages over nests to keep predators out and by limiting access to nesting grounds.

Eggs are often abandoned if a nest is washed out by high waters, one of the pair dies or if they become too agitated by nearby activity. Beach-goers in Northwest Michigan often come across signs warning them of closed nesting sites.

The hope was that increasing the birds’ numbers would allow them to spread.

Two projects on the shores of Lake Michigan have successfully developed plover-friendly habitat: one at Wilderness State Park on the northern shore of the Lower Peninsula, the other on a series of eroded islands in Wisconsin’s Lower Green Bay.

DeLoria has headed the project at Wilderness State Park where plovers abandoned the shores in 2006 after invasive, fast-growing vegetation infiltrated what used to be unadulterated beachfront.

“[The plovers’] strategy is to look like the beach,” DeLoria said. “And that’s how they survive, to look like the sand and the cobble.”

Results came quickly.

Park staff started clearing brush and trees from the shore in 2014, DeLoria said. In the summer of 2015, they observed a pair nesting there. In 2016, that same pair returned to raise three chicks.

Cavalieri said measures exist to protect the birds at Ludington State Park, like expanding the area of the cage enclosures. But the beach’s popularity limits even those options, and the opportunity for habitat restoration is limited.

“It just may be that Ludington is the kind of place where we have to wait for the lake levels to go down before we see a bunch of birds come back there,” Cavalieri said.

But there may be opportunity further up the coast at Nordhouse Dunes Wilderness Area, which hasn’t hosted a nesting plover pair since 2010, said U.S. Forest Service Forest biologist Philip Huber.  It’s part of Huron-Manistee National Forest.

The beaches there are narrow–sometimes only 2 to 3 feet wide before they butt up against sandy cliffs–and high lake levels haven’t helped.

Simply put, there’s not enough room for plovers, aside from the occasional nest among the dunes.

There was talk of using heavy equipment to flatten the beaches, Huber said, but the expense, long review process and logistical issues of moving heavy machinery into a roadless area make that unlikely.

And in a rapidly shifting environment like the dunes, such efforts could be wiped away in a single season.

“We just didn’t believe it would be a good thing to be mucking around on the beach trying to make nesting habitat for the plovers,” he said, especially without guarantees of its permanence.


Spreading cobble along the beach and among the dunes would be more feasible and make the area more attractive to plovers, Huber said. There would still be no guarantees, but the project’s lower cost and relative ease make it easier to justify as an experiment.

Continued success requires continued maintenance — a lesson Wilderness State Park staff learned last summer.

The female didn’t return to the nest the pair had established the year before. After waiting a short time, her mate also left. Invasive spotted knapweed and sweet clover had again overtaken both the shore and hopes for another round of chicks.

DeLoria said staffers learned from that failure. They’re now trained and equipped with herbicides that should make it easier to keep the beaches clear. She said she hopes maintenance will become easier as they continue to beat back the vegetation.

Meanwhile, plover advocates are looking for the next habitat to rebuild, especially historic nesting sites that are near enough to established colonies like the Sleeping Bear population to allow the chicks to recolonize it easily.

Steven Maier writes for Great Lakes Echo.

Pipeline attacks in video game sparks Great Lakes controversy

Capital News Service

LANSING – In the “Thunderbird Strike” video game, the conflict is over oil pipelines crossing Great Lakes landscapes.

Some petroleum industry advocates say that it encourages ecoterrorism. And that’s a serious claim – a federal offense.

A quick synopsis: Players control a figure of Native American mythology on a flight from Canada’s large deposits of heavy crude oil to the Straits of Mackinac. They gather lightning from the clouds and use it to strike representations of oil and gas machinery or to resurrect animals.

“I grew up with thunderbird stories being passed on to me,” said Elizabeth LaPensée, a Native American games developer and Michigan State University assistant professor in the Department of Media & Information.

“We talk about a time when the people will call for the help of the thunderbirds to heal the lands and waters,” said LaPensée,whose ancestry is both Anishinaabe and Métis, as well as Irish-American.

“The game really reflects that. It’s a story that’s combined with an understanding that there will be a time where there will come a snake that threatens to swallow the lands and the waters whole,” she said.

This snake appears in the final level of the game, a visual metaphor for Enbridge Line 5, the controversial pipeline that transports oil beneath the Straits of Mackinac. The pipeline, built to last 50 years, is now 62 years old.

Environmentalists and other critics say it’s old, worn, poorly maintained and in danger of polluting the world’s largest supply of fresh surface water.

The game also features scenes where people cross the screen carrying “No Pipelines on Indigenous Land” posters.

LaPensée advocates for this cause on the “Thunderbird Strike” website, encouraging visitors to learn more about oil pipelines and their environmental impacts.

“Thunderbird Strike” won Best DIgital Media award at ImagineNATIVE Film and Media Arts Festival in Toronto. It’s the leading indigenous media arts festival in the world.

The game doesn’t sit well with supporters of the oil and gas industry, however.

When asked what Enbridge Inc. thinks of the game, company corporate communications representative Michael Barnes provided this statement: “No matter your view on future energy sources, reasonable people understand that destroying or tampering with existing infrastructure is dangerous – it has the potential to harm people and the very environment we want to protect.”

Barnes referred questions to the American Petroleum Institute, which said it doesn’t comment on fictional items like video games.

But criticism has been sparked elsewhere.

LaPensée received funding to make the game through an arts grant from the Minnesota-based Arrowhead Regional Arts Council and the criticism has been especially harsh in that state.

Minnesota state Rep. Bob Gunther, a Republican, called the Arts Council grant an abuse of funding.

LaPensée was audited, but everything checked out for her, she said.

Minnesota state Sen. David Osmek, another Republican, called the game “an eco-terrorist version of Angry Birds.”

Toby Mack, president of the Energy Equipment & Infrastructure Alliance, accused the game of encouraging eco-terrorism.

LaPensée disagrees.

“Nowhere in the game is there anything that really would encourage that,” she said. “It’s not meant to be violent. It’s meant to say that we can remove these structures in a safe way that will help the lands and the waters and the animals.”

Since the game’s release, LaPensée said she’s endured attacks on her reputation as a professor and game designer. She’s had to change her phone number.

“When the first oil lobbyist group put out a press release, their goal was the complete deletion of the game,” LaPensée said. “So I think it could be feasible they’ll keep following the game, even though everyone who has published about the game to date has not actually played it themselves.”

Kate Habrel writes for Great Lakes Echo.