By COLLEEN OTTE & ERIC FREEDMAN
Capital News Service
LANSING — Ecosystem assets in the Great Lakes region, such as sport fishing, boating, beach use, park visits and birding, contribute significantly to the tourism economy of shoreline communities and can help shape restoration priorities for the lakes, according to a new study that incorporates highly detailed maps.
Such “cultural ecosystem services” are valuable to society and have “great potential for benefiting natural resource management and conservation,” it said.
Those services or activities vary in where they take place, and so do stressors, threats, to the Great Lakes, said the lead author of the study, David Allan, a professor emeritus at the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources and Environment.
He said, “There might be better decision-making afforded by our looking at both threats and benefits together instead of just identifying threats and trying to combat them.”
The study said the public takes advantage of recreational activities differently in each part of the region. For example, sport fishing is most popular on the U.S. side of lakes Erie and Ontario and in south-central Lake Michigan.
There’s heavy beach use along “substantial lengths of the shoreline of all the Great Lakes, with the exception of Lake Superior.” And while beach-going is heaviest in urban areas and lowest on northern Lake Huron and around Lake Superior, “destination beaches, such as Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore and Warren Dunes State Park, have high estimates of usage, despite being located in low-population areas,” the study said. Warren Dunes is in Berrien County and Sleeping Bear Dunes is on the Leelanau Peninsula, both along Lake Michigan.
The region’s most-visited state parks are along Lake Michigan’s eastern shore and the southern shore of Lake Erie.
And birding is geographically widespread, with abundant sites around lakes Michigan Huron, Ontario and most of Lake Erie.
There are multi-billion-dollar-a-year benefits from those five types of tourism and recreation activity, according to the study, which cited “strong evidence that sustaining recreational opportunities in the Great Lakes results in economic dividends.”
The study uses ultra-detailed maps of Great Lakes recreational use.
Patrick Doran, the director of conservation at the Michigan chapter of the Nature Conservancy, said, “The first thing we did was map threats to the Great Lakes – where the biggest human impact was on the system. But from a conservation perspective, that’s only part of the story.
“You can’t just map the threats — you also have to map what people care about,” said Doran, a study co-author.
Places that are high-value but low-stress should receive actual protection for land and water, he said. Areas that are high-value and high-stress, on the other hand, may need different strategies geared toward restoring or reconstructing habitat, like removing toxins or contaminants if they present threats.
“I think adding a little resolution about what humans value from an ecosystem better gears certain conservation strategies,” Doran said.
Michelle Selzer, the Lake Erie coordinator for the Michigan Office of the Great Lakes, said that visually showing connections between recreation use and stress level helps further restoration plans under the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, for example, or the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement.
“The maps and the data that have been collected can help inform decisions on where we focus our restoration investments,” Selzer said. “We recognize that if we can target those investments in those locations where we have high recreation use – and if we’re able to address the forces that might be contributing to those environmental stressors – then we have a way to make the greatest impact and enhance those societal benefits.”
Doran said doing such an analysis on a Great Lakes-wide scale rather than location by location is crucial.
“We’re starting to get a feel for the whole system, and that’s really important because it’s got an identity as a whole system – people think of the ‘Great Lakes,’” he said. “And management and federal and state money are being invested at that scale.”
U-M’s Allan pointed to the geographic variation of environmental threats.
“There’s no question that the algal blooms are a very significant factor in multiple locations” including western Lake Erie, Saginaw Bay and Green Bay, Wisconsin, “but not everywhere,” he said. Similarly, threats from new invasive species such as Asian carp “won’t be a problem everywhere but would be in western Lake Erie and the Maumee River if it ever gets there.”
The co-authors include researchers from Michigan Tech University, the Great Lakes Environmental Research Lab in Ann Arbor and the University of Wisconsin.
Their study, published in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, said, “Human benefits derived from healthy Great Lakes ecosystems, including highly valued recreational cultural ecosystem services, are the chief rationale for the enormous investments in restoration programs to address food-web disruptions, widespread algal blooms, frequent beach closings and the much-feared invasion of multiple species of Asian carp.”
And these five recreational uses “are key motivations for protecting the Great Lakes and have high societal value. These benefits are often directly experienced by the public, making them a powerful justification for ecosystem restoration and management,” it said.
ADDITIONAL RESOURCES FOR CNS EDITORS
“Using Cultural Ecosystem Services to Inform Restoration Priorities in the Laurentian Great Lakes” http://www-personal.umich.edu/~dallan/allan_2015_frontiers_main.pdf
By COLLEEN OTTE & ERIC FREEDMAN