LANSING — What do a trail system linking Northwest Michigan communities, a small-scale organic vegetable farm that supplies local restaurants with fresh produce, citizen-scientists alert for invasive aquatics, apple researchers and critics of an oil pipeline under the Straits of Mackinac have in common?
All are part of a drive for environmental sustainability and all involve some form of community engagement.
As Michigan State University’s Knight Chair in Environmental Journalism, I was part of a recent Sustainable Michigan Endowed Project (SMEP) study tour in the Cadillac-Traverse City-Leelanau Peninsula area.
Other study tour participants were doctoral students and faculty from a range of departments: Community Sustainability; Philosophy; Fisheries & Wildlife; Journalism; Planning, Design & Construction; and Agricultural, Food & Resource Economics — including grad students from Togo, South Korea and Colombia. All are involved in researching some aspect of sustainability in Michigan.
Endowed by a grant from the Kellogg Foundation, SMEP “serves as a catalyst and convener of interdisciplinary dialogue and research around existing and emerging sustainability topics and has invested considerable resources in exploring the implications of sustainability particularly for the future of Michigan.”
Last year the group examined environmental justice and sustainability in Detroit. This time the geographic focus was more rural and agricultural: Traverse City, the largest city in Northwest Michigan but with fewer than 16,000 year-round residents.
We began at the Department of Natural Resources’ Carl T. Johnson Hunt and Fish Center in Cadillac. There, amid exhibits about hunting, fishing and wildlife in the state, a DNR interpreter explained the importance of Michigan’s hunting tradition, and the revenue that fishing and hunting licenses generate to support natural resources management and protection.
The next day we went to TART — the nonprofit Traverse Area Recreation and Transportation Trails network — to learn about the community-rooted initiative that promotes outdoor recreation, furthers sustainable transportation and connects trail users with each other and with nature.
“We don’t want to own the trails. We want the community to own the trails,” TART’s Brian Beauchamp told us. “People often fight us on new trails,” Beauchamp, outreach and program director, said, but often discover that the trails increase their property values — and often use the trails themselves.
We met with experts from two environmental nonprofit organizations, For Love of Water (FLOW) and the Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities, to discuss such issues as the safety of the controversial Enbridge Line 5 oil pipeline under the Straits of Mackinac. FLOW’s Dave Dempsey and Groundwork’s Jim Lively explained how groups like theirs are partnering with tribal governments and businesses in an effort to force the state to close the pipeline.
We headed into the field at the Maple Bay Natural Area, a 450-acre Grand Traverse County Park, with fisheries biologist Steve Hensler and forestry expert Jessica Simons of the Cerulean Center and scientist-educator Jeanie Williams of the Inland Seas Education Association. There our focus was biodiversity and the role of citizen-scientists in gathering environmental data such as plant populations and invasive species.
Amidst lapping waves, low sand dunes, water-smoothed rocks and soaring gulls, our fieldwork included helping Hensler to identify hundreds of tiny fish caught in a seine, alert not only for invasives but also for native fish that aren’t usually found in the East Arm of Lake Michigan’s Grand Traverse Bay.
We also learned from them about BioBlitz, their two-day effort last year by volunteer amateurs and scientists to inventory as many plants and animals as possible at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.
At Michigan State University’s Northern Michigan Horticulture Research Center in Leelanau County, researchers serve farmers and growers in its five-county — Manistee, Benzie, Leelanau, Grand Traverse and Antrim — that produce nearly half of the U.S. tart cherry crop and 83 percent of the state’s sweet cherry crop. The center is also a key player in research about other fruits, especially apples and grapes.
Center coordinator Nikki Rothwell talked about the importance of building relationships between growers and researchers and about recognizing the potentially deadly impact of climate change and extreme weather — such as late frosts and drought — on fruit crops. She emphasized the need to understand the economics of farming and the pressures of development in Northwest Michigan.
We headed to Shady Lane Cellars, a boutique winery in Suttons Bay, to tour the vineyard with vineyard manager Andy Fles and the wine-making facility with winemaker Kasey Wierzba. From there it was to Loma Farm, an organic vegetable and flower farm near Traverse City, to learn from co-owner Nic Theisen about marketing locally, paying employees fairly, environmental sustainability and respecting the land.
Overall, it was evident how diverse aspects of sustainability in Northwest Michigan are, from vineyards to shoreline dunes, from organic leeks to the oil and natural gas pipeline under Straits of Mackinac, from worker wages to outdoor recreation.