2021 Great Lakes Region Agenda for Congress:

Restore our Great Lakes, Promote Equity & Justice, and Protect Fish and Wildlife

As the new Congress gets down to business after a bitter election—and post-election—that featured outright assaults on our democracy, we’re hearing a lot of talk about the need to unite our country. As a wildlife conservation organization, the National Wildlife Federation knows a thing or two about bringing people together from different parties, different regions, and different backgrounds. This spirit of bipartisanship has been a hallmark of our work for more than 90 years.

Our bold agenda for the 117th Congress seeks to restore and heal our Great Lakes, strives to build equity and inclusion into every aspect of our advocacy, and protects fish and wildlife. Our five-part plan includes creating a new generation of conservation jobs, ensuring safe drinking water, restoring our mighty rivers, protecting public lands, and confronting the reality of climate change.

Conservation is not partisan. It can unite us

Here are the highlights of the National Wildlife Federation’s Great Lakes Region Congressional Agenda:

A 21st Century Civilian Conservation Corps

A group of young adults clean up a polluted natural area.
Mobilizing the next generation of conservation stewards with a modernized Civilian Conservation Corps. Credit: Marc Smith

Many of the trails, lodges, and cabins we enjoy in our National Parks and other public lands across the country were built decades ago by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), a signature New Deal program that put Americans back to work while meeting key public priorities. Unfortunately, in 1933, the CCC was built upon a foundation that was not inclusive. However, a 21st Century CCC can offer job opportunities and an entry to careers in conservation for historically underserved communities by fostering greater inclusivity within the program and the communities and projects it serves. We need to improve wildlife habitat; restore and reconnect forests, grasslands, and wetlands; clean up waterways; improve recreational areas, make communities more resilient to climate impacts and address environmental injustice.

Here is the good news. The federal COVID-19 recovery bill that just passed the U.S. House has some incredibly important conservation provisions, including air quality monitoring in frontline communities and over $1 billion to launch a national service corps. Here’s our press release lauding this progress, and encouraging the U.S. Senate to follow suit.

Clean and Safe Drinking Water

A girl drinking from a water fountain.
No issue is more urgent than guaranteeing safe drinking water for all. Credit: Healing Our Waters Great Lakes Coalition

No issue is more urgent—or more connected to repairing the historical harm done to communities of color and low-income communities than guaranteeing safe drinking water for all. Neglected and crumbling infrastructure, including pumps and pipes, are leading to tainted drinking water and sewage overflows. Unfortunately, cash-strapped municipalities don’t have the resources at hand to repair their water systems, forcing the costs upon the most marginalized in our communities.

As we have seen in places like Flint, Detroit, Toledo, East Chicago, Milwaukee, and other Midwest communities unsafe drinking water from the tap is a critical public health issue. The last thing we need during a global pandemic is more danger from contaminated water or the threat of water shutoffs.

The new Congress must invest in repairing wastewater, drinking water, and stormwater infrastructure in rural, urban and suburban communities. The federal government used to pay as much as 63% of the costs for clean water infrastructure. That share has now dropped to 9%.  Congress needs to turn this ship around, and the right vehicles are the Clean Water State Revolving Fund (SRF) and Drinking Water State Revolving Fund (SRF). These federal programs provide grants so state and local governments can carry out critical water projects.  National Wildlife Federation recommends no less than $3.4 billion for the Clean Water SRF and $2.3 billion for the Drinking Water SRF. Funds should be targeted to communities of color to ensure equitable distribution of resources. Public funds must also support nature-based solutions, like improved stormwater controls, to prevent problems before they become more serious.

Restoring our Mighty Rivers: The Ohio and Mississippi

Man holds glass of polluted water from river.
NWF CEO Collin OMara with Lake Erie glass of ‘water’. Credit: The Blade/Dave Zapotosky

These two great waterways are both cultural and natural treasures—and vital economic engines for millions of people who live near and around them.   

The Ohio River Basin is home to more than 25 million people. The river itself is the most polluted in the U.S. with approximately 550 industrial sites discharging pollutants such as nitrates, PCBs, and mercury. Additional threats from legacy pollutants, farm runoff, acid mine drainage, invasive species, and climate change have led to impacts like a 2015 algal bloom that contaminated more than 650 miles of the Ohio.

The National Wildlife Federation and our state affiliate partners along the Ohio River are already working to clean the Ohio. Together, we are urging Congress to immediately develop and fund a strong community and science-based Ohio River restoration strategy.

The Mississippi River, which runs through 10 states, including several in the Upper Midwest, presents its own challenges. Over the past century, it has become an over-engineered canal prone to catastrophic flooding, a superhighway for spreading invasive species like invasive carp, and a vector for carrying contaminants deep into the Gulf of Mexico.

NWF is calling on Congress to create the Mississippi River Restoration and Resilience Initiative housed out of the Environmental Protection Agency, functioning as a geographic program like the successful Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. Also, Congress should authorize and appropriate a new Mississippi River Basin Fishery Commission, giving state and federal agencies a platform for collaborative efforts to stop the spread of invasive species.

Protecting Public Lands

A canoe on a still lake.
 The Great American Outdoors Act provides permanent funding, supporting Minnesota’s outdoor spaces like Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

Despite all the turmoil of 2020, Congress was able to pass historic legislation—The Great American Outdoors Act—to improve fish and wildlife habitat and direct billions toward support of outdoor recreation and access on National Parks and public lands.

But while the Great American Outdoors Act is important, our hunting and fishing heritage remains at risk. The increased threat of privatization of public land, wildlife disease, and habitat destruction continue to threaten our region’s fish and wildlife. NWF recommends additional legislative action:

·       Pass The Recovering America’s Wildlife Act. This will dedicate $1.4 billion annually to state and tribal-led wildlife conservation organizations helping prevent wildlife from becoming endangered in the first place.

·       Pass the Boundary Waters Protection Bill, to protect the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA) in Northern Minnesota. One of the world’s most treasured and visited Wilderness areas, the BWCA is currently threatened by a proposed sulfide mine. The proposed legislation will withdraw lands within the BWCA watershed from mining and mineral exploration, protecting nearly 250,000 acres of federal land and waters.

·       Our Great Northwoods stretching across millions of acres north of the 45th parallel in Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, are vital habitats for a variety of fish and wildlife. Like the BWCA, the Great Northwoods face unique challenges, including ongoing resource extraction pressures, a rapidly-changing climate, exclusion of stakeholders like tribal nations in decision making, growing outbreaks of deadly wildlife diseases, and dwindling funding for science-based management.

Sustainable management of northern hardwood forests as an economic driver for the region must include compre­hensive management plans for federal forests that ensure access for all people, actively manage for wildlife habitat and climate impacts and work in partnership with tribal nations.

·       Fund the U.S. Forest Service Urban and Community Forestry Program to bring more forests and green space to the region’s population centers along with the creation of a Forest Conservation Easement Program. This would incentivize forest conservation through conservation easements to buy the development rights from private landowners.

Confronting the reality of climate change: Our entire planet is threatened by the higher temperatures and extreme weather events that accompany climate change, and the Great Lakes are no exception. Strengthening the ability of coastal communities to adapt to changing water levels, increased habitat restoration, and trans­forming our energy policies is the best path forward to address the adverse effects of a changing climate. Absent a proactive strategy, the dangers of a changing climate—a lack of safe drinking water, disruption of agriculture, and our food supply—will fall most severely on low-income and historically marginalized communities.

Climate change is causing more extreme weather, devas­tating habitat, endangering wildlife, and hurting small business. So-called “hardened shorelines” of cement and steel walls only undermine the natural features and functions that are critical to creating habitats for fish, wetland birds, and wildlife.

Congress should provide funding for local units of government to assess, plan and implement resilient strategies that restore natural shorelines and infrastructure including required updates of State Hazard Mitigation Plans. NWF also supports passage of the Living Shorelines Act and reauthorization and strengthening of the Coastal Zone Management Act while implementing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Great Lakes Coastal Resiliency Study.

But any effort at mitigating climate impact must include promoting a low-carbon future. Promoting renewable wind and solar power should be a top priority for Congress, with strategies that include a cap-and-trade program or emission trading program along with a carbon tax. An economy-wide carbon pricing program can create new, good-paying jobs along with incentives for industry to invest in renewable energy and carbon pollution reduction technology. At the same time, renewable energy projects should be properly sited on public land to avoid high wildlife value areas.

Ducks at Seney National Wildlife Refuge Photo by Courtney Celley/USFWS.
Ducks at Seney National Wildlife Refuge. Credit: Courtney Celley/USFWS.

More than 85 million Americans live in the eight Great Lakes states of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and New York. The lakes collectively hold 95 percent of North America’s fresh surface water and provide drinking water to some 40 million people.

With forceful action from Congress and the Biden-Harris Administration, the Great Lakes can be a “Great Uniter.” With a healthy dose of old-fashioned Midwestern common sense and decency, we can show a pathway to bring the country together around shared goals of clean water, abundant fish and wildlife habitat, healthy communities, and environmental justice.

Marc Smith

Policy Director

National Wildlife Federation