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A tiny trickle turns into a torrent of conservation issues for Michigan

Spring is here and, for me, that means heading down to Liberty, near Jackson, to visit the headwaters of the Grand River. I feel lucky to know the spot where Michigan’s longest river begins. It is a place protected by The Nature Conservancy, and it looks just how you might imagine it. There really is a little pond where the Grand River begins, and a spot where I can straddle my legs over a trickling stream, and with a huge smile on my face, know I have a foot on either side of the Grand River.

I love knowing it is the same Grand River I drive over every day and flows by my Lansing office, the same one to which its namesake city wants to restore its rapids.

What I find interesting is the diversity of perspectives you would find along this 252-mile river. When I stand over that little trickle this year, I’ll be thinking about our work to protect the wetlands that maintain water quality and a healthy start for the river. I’ll be worrying whether we are working fast enough to win the battle against invasive plants. Further downstream, anglers share reports on their catch and the best fishing spots. Others monitor pollution, and still others build trails along the river to connect people with nature.

And therein lies the challenge: 252 miles of people, communities, organizations and governments looking at the river from where they stand on the banks, thinking about how they want to enjoy and use it from their narrowly defined stretch.

This is the challenge of managing natural resources and developing effective policies – thinking at the right scale. The river isn’t a competing list of people standing along the banks, it is a watershed and a suite of inter-related natural processes, services and uses, what we at the Nature Conservancy refer to as a “whole system.” It is about making individual management decisions within that context – how to optimize our use of these resources, yet do so in a manner that assures the long-term health and resiliency of the natural system so it continues to provide for future generations.

The Grand River is both a scientific and political metaphor for what has been so challenging in developing sound natural resources policy: We see it just from where we stand, when we need to look at it at the larger watershed in which the river functions. It befuddles me how much people seem to enjoy and find comfort in advocacy that begins with win-lose propositions, rather than common ground.

Effective win-win policies will emerge from a science-based approach that begins with understanding that we are all in pursuit of the same ultimate outcome — a high quality of life with a healthy economy, environment and culture. It requires taking the “whole-system” view of the river, with a long-term time frame of providing for future generations. Good policy is not responding to the list of individual constituents’ desires of the moment, but thoughtful analysis and development of metrics that frame both our opportunities and the limits to natural resource use.

I have the same reaction when I read about Lake Erie, or Michigan’s energy policy. Western Lake Erie is a complex whole-system challenge that includes factors relating to land use, agriculture, climate, man-made alterations to hydrology, coastal habitat loss and more. Energy policy is an issue of short-term and long-term economic and environmental impacts and goals, uncertainty in emerging federal policies and technologies, and Michigan’s unique history and status of energy sources, uses and efficiency.

While some may feel impatient, the governor’s effort to take the next several months to “gather the facts” of the entire spectrum of energy information is the right move, because anything short of looking at the whole system, and anticipating where Michigan needs to be in energy use and production by 2050, could result in decisions we regret later.

When I straddle the banks of the Grand River, I’ll still worry about getting my part done along the banks of where I stand, but I’ll be stepping back to put that in the proper perspective of the needed solutions for the whole.  And then, maybe I’ll just close my eyes and listen to the birds sing.

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