Great Lakes’ protection requires more education, study finds

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Capital News Service

LANSING Michigan residents worry a lack of environmental education threatens the state’s defining feature, the Great Lakes, according to a recent study.

Focus groups from both peninsulas identified environmental threats for coastal communities and called for education on how to be better stewards of the Great Lakes, according to the study published in the Journal of Great Lakes Research. 

Concerns varied by lake, but the two most common themes were rising water levels and lack of environmental education. 

A rocky Lake Superior shore.

Lucas Ludwig via Unsplash

A rocky Lake Superior shore.

Those surveyed also listed beach erosion, pollution, public access, invasive species and lake users’ safety as concerns, said Kenneth Levine, an author of the study and adjunct professor in the Michigan State University Communications Department. 

Lake Erie and Lake Ontario coastal communities were not a part of the study. 

“The Lake Huron people were most concerned about pollution,” Levine said. “The Lake Michigan people were most concerned about erosion. And the Lake Superior people were worried about keeping the waters useful.”

And they all said they want to see those issues addressed.

The focus groups concluded that the best way to solve many of those environmental problems is through education and stewardship, Levine said. 

Stewardship is taking care of something that’s important to you, said Mary Whitmore, the executive director of the Great Lakes Stewardship Initiative. 

The initiative works with K-12 teachers and communities to educate students on environmental stewardship. It uses place-based education, which involves learning through participation in community service projects and immersing students in the local environment, Whitmore said. 

Anyone can be a better steward through small actions like making art to raise awareness, volunteering in their community, landscaping their lawns differently and even feeding birds, Whitmore said. 

“These things all just sound like trivial things that aren’t going to make a big difference, but it’s going to forge a connection between you and your place.” she said. “It’s going to forge a sense of caring for your place, and when you care about something you pay attention to it and you take action to protect it. 

“That’s really what stewardship is — just taking care of stuff.”

Levine said that ideas the focus groups identified to promote stewardship in public education included inviting guest speakers to talk about stewardship, teaching students about invasive species and how to properly dig up invasive plants, and offering field trips. 

They also brainstormed ways to teach tourists about stewardship, such as playing informational videos in hotels and distributing brochures or signs reminding people to throw away trash and treat their surroundings with respect. 

“We didn’t talk to many tourists, but they’re just as important an audience,” he said. “We want them to enjoy it, have a wonderful time, come back, but also not do any damage while they’re here.”

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore off of Lake Michigan.

Srikanth Peetha via Unsplash

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore off of Lake Michigan.

The participants’ focus was on ensuring that education and outreach are ongoing. 

“We can’t get the message out once and be done,” Levine said. “These are ongoing concerns and they’re not necessarily going to go away.”

The study gathered information for a potential messaging campaign to persuade Great Lakes residents and visitors to be better coastline stewards. It was funded by the Michigan Coastal Zone Management Program, which works to protect public health through the environment, according to the study. 

The goal of a messaging campaign is to create things like billboards and public service announcements that raise awareness of issues and change people’s opinions or behaviors, Levine said. 

“Our lakes define us,” is the potential tagline for the campaign. 

“The idea is that as a state we are really integrated with the lakes in ways that other states can’t necessarily relate,” Levine said.

“It’s really important that we become good stewards of our coastline because we have 3,288 miles of it, and it really impacts the quality of life here in Michigan.”

Taylor Haelterman reports for Great Lakes Echo.

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