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Bridge Michigan
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In Michigan, we celebrate – and ignore – nature’s rhythms of change

Our family tradition every summer is a special week amongst the magnificent dunes along Lake Michigan. The first thing we do when we arrive is run down to the lakeshore to the outlet where Lower Lake Herring connects to Lake Michigan, to see what Mother Nature has done since we were last there.

It is always different and always beautiful. The size of the beach is sometimes double, sometimes half. Sometimes the outlet meanders along the shore before pouring into the big lake and other times it flows straight in. The dynamic nature of the system is anticipated, planned for and embraced.

Those of you who have special places you visit in Michigan know what I mean. I have had countless conversations with Michiganders who talk about their special places, the beauty of those places in the changing seasons and both the subtle and extraordinary dynamics of the places they love.

So why in the world do we, society, seem to forget all this when it comes to planning and managing our  natural resources? Extraordinary amounts of money are spent in an attempt to harness and control nature to assure no change -- or our planning is designed as if there won’t be any change. Yet, science will tell you that the one thing we can count on is change; in fact, the name of the game is to plan for variability and optimize our ability to adapt to change.

Even more important to understand is that the health and productivity of these natural resources are dependent on dynamics of change and variability. If we want fisheries, forests, wetlands, lakes and rivers to provide for future generations and healthy economies, their health, productivity and resiliency are dependent on dynamic processes, and our ability to effectively manage them as dynamic systems.

Everyone is talking about the record low lake levels compared to record high levels 30 years ago; or last year’s drought and low river levels, and this spring’s flooding. As we scramble for short-term immediate answers, such as finding the funding to dredge harbors, are we looking at the long-term solutions? Are we examining how our land management practices upstream are contributing to erosion and loadings at the river mouths; or how our alteration and development of the coastal systems modify sand transport in the big lakes and contribute to the need for dredging?

Maybe we need to reflect on our impulse to “manage” the environment in the short term versus understanding and adapting to the natural cycles to achieve our outcomes in the long term. We are not alone as we face these questions and issues in Michigan and the Great Lakes, as we watch others ask the same questions in response to increasing storm intensity and natural disasters. Are we planning for the anticipated increase in storm intensity of 31 percent as forecasted in a report by a consortium of 13 federal agencies? How will this contribute to erosion and further deposition in our harbors?

Can it be overwhelming at times to plan in an ever-changing environment? Sure. When planning for variability, change and adaptation, the uncertainties are many, but they need not paralyze us -- and shouldn’t serve as an excuse for inaction. Science and history can serve as our guide and help us develop effective and more cost-efficient plans for optimal outcomes.

I wish it was as easy as running down to the outlet at Lower Lake Herring where we embrace the annual change; where the only thing we know for sure is that it will not be the same. But it isn’t, especially in a world where we are facing increasing impacts on water quality, growing demand for food, increasing changes in our climate and more. It reminds me of that saying: a failure to plan is planning for failure.

Well, in the case of Michigan’s valuable natural resources, a failure to plan for change will ultimately lead to failing to provide our future generations with sustainably managed resources that assure healthy economies, environment and quality of life.

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