The heart of an international region home to more than 50 million people is water. Beyond providing the basic necessity for life, the Great Lakes have shaped the geology, climate, economy, culture, and people of their surrounding region, and they are more than a point of pride for those residents. Plainly visible from outer space and an enduring reminder of the last Ice Age, the Great Lakes are the largest surface source of freshwater in the world.
But the Great Lakes are more than just five bodies of water: they’re the land and wildlife that surround the lakes, as well as the people and communities that depend on them. They provide drinking water to 10% of Americans, they support economies, transportation, and agriculture, and they have been declared a national treasure by Congress. These are our Great Lakes, they belong to everyone, and they are vital.
Understanding the Value of our Lakes
Each of us has our own impression of the Great Lakes, yet uniting those views is a common appreciation for these natural treasures.
The Great Lakes shelter more than 90,000 square miles of aquatic habitats, and they are surrounded by more than 200,000 square miles of terrain ranging from cities and towns to wetlands, forests, and farmland. The networks of parks, open spaces, beaches, and conservation areas offer home to hundreds of wildlife species, as well as numerous opportunities for people to experience the lakes. Restoring the natural landscapes of the region, such as the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore and Illinois Beach State Park, offers a home to many species of concern while providing unparalleled opportunities for visitors to experience the region’s nature. Even small green spaces like Chicago’s Montrose Point can provide a natural retreat for both people and wildlife.
But the lakes are also the economic engine of the Midwest. They offer routes of transportation which support the regional economy, they provide clean drinking water, they support recreation and tourism, and they sustain the region’s agriculture. Over 1.5 million jobs are tied to the Great Lakes providing $60 million in wages. Outdoor recreation opportunities, such as paddling, fishing, wildlife viewing, and miles of trails, contribute billions to the US economy – recreational fishing alone accounts for over $4 billion.
Collaborating on Restoration
It is not without substantial collaboration that the Great Lakes can endure as a natural and national treasure. The Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, signed in 1972, was a major international step towards protection and conservation. The Great Lakes Compact signed in 2008 took another stride to preserving the water quality and ecological health of the region.
In 2010, the US Federal Government launched the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI), the most comprehensive proposal to protect and restore the lakes to date. The GLRI aims to limit toxic pollution, such as mercury and PCBs, from entering drinking water sources and habitat for wildlife. It focuses on reducing runoff from developed areas and industrial sites while restoring the natural landscapes that surround the lakes, and the initiative aims to prevent invasive plant and animal species from threatening the region’s biodiversity. With support from the GLRI, Openlands has planted over 2,500 trees in the Chicago area over the last four years.
To date the GLRI has invested $2.2 billion in restoration projects, and a Brookings Institution study found that every dollar invested in Great Lakes restoration yields a two dollar return. Ten federal agencies have coordinated efforts for the GLRI including the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the Department of Agriculture. Taken together, this level of coordination demonstrates not just the breadth of areas impacted by the lakes, but also the level of commitment required to preserve the Great Lakes.
For more than 50 years, Openlands has been an advocate of the Great Lakes and we have led many regional initiatives to advance Great Lakes restoration. We assisted in the establishment of the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore (1965) and played a critical role in dedicating the Illinois & Michigan Canal National Heritage Corridor (1984). Openlands provided leadership to the Steering Committee of Millennium Reserve and has helped implement numerous regional plans for Lake Michigan. Additionally, the Lake Michigan Federation (now Alliance for the Great Lakes) and Friends of the Chicago River were both founded as projects of Openlands.
Our commitment to the Great Lakes extends to our on-the-ground efforts to improve the health of Lake Michigan. We have restored the Openlands Lakeshore Preserve, a mile of lakefront natural areas and unique ecosystems in Highland Park which feeds into to the Lake Michigan watershed. Our urban forestry and regional planning programs, such as Space to Grow, look to control stormwater pollution to Lake Michigan and better manage Chicago’s water resources. Yet people are the core of Openlands, so we ensure access to an open lakefront, and facilitate ways to connect students to the lake through Eco-Explorations and Birds in my Neighborhood®.
These are our Great Lakes, and they ask no less than a full commitment to their protection. Whether at Indiana Dunes, Montrose Point, the Openlands Lakeshore Preserve, or any of the 10,500 miles of Great Lakes coastline, connections to nature inspire greater appreciation for our natural treasures. Openlands will continue to protect and restore the Great Lakes, and ensure they continue to belong to everyone.