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Good news from budget battlefront: Funding for Great Lakes health restored

For now, at least, party politics does indeed seem to stop at the water’s edge.

What explains this anomaly that makes the Great Lakes, as the AP story has it, a place where "party politics really does stop at the water's edge"?

From the Great Lakes basin comes a rare good-news story about environmental protection and its financing: A bipartisan group of congressmen, with Republicans in the lead, is defending a special restoration fund against slash-and-slash-some-more budgetmaking in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Here’s how last week’s piece by the AP’s John Flesher framed the situation:

Nowhere has the fervor to cut government down to size been more dramatically on display than in the industrial Midwest.

Republicans have seized control of statehouses across the traditional battleground region, where they’ve slashed budgets with a vengeance. Their counterparts in Congress have waged war with Democrats over federal spending, led by Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin….

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But there’s a 94,000-square-mile exception to the Republicans’ crusade to starve the federal beast: the Great Lakes. For all their indignation about government overreach, Republicans in the eight-state region are matching Democrats’ enthusiasm for an array of federal programs benefiting the inland seas, from dredging harbors to controlling invasive predators like the fish-killing sea lamprey.

Flesher’s leading case in point is a House subcommittee’s move to cut next year’s funding for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative by 80 percent, in the course of whacking away at budgets for the U.S. Forest Service, the Interior Department and, especially, the Environmental Protection Agency, which distributes much of the money set aside for the initiative.

David Joyce, a Republican freshman from the Ashtabula region of Ohio, jumped up in opposition and got most of the cuts restored; now a “bipartisan parade” of nearly 40 members from the eight lakes states has formed to protect or even increase the allotments for GLRI, which has spent $1.3 billion on research and remedies from 2010 through this year.

It’s about the economy, too

According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the subcommittee voted to cut the restoration fund from $285 million to $60 million for next year; the AP says the bipartisan group is pushing for an increase to $300 million, while Joyce wants $475 million.

But this is not fundamentally a numbers story, I think. For perspective on this year’s allotment of $285 million for Great Lakes Restoration, consider that the House budget-cutters are seeking to reduce EPA’s funding by an amount 10 times that size: $2.8 billion.

Nevertheless, as a regional director for the National Wildlife Federation director  observed, “The last two years, Congress has given [GLRI] the exact level of funding the president called for in his budget. That’s almost unheard of, given the partisan toxicity right now.”

What explains this anomaly that makes the Great Lakes, as the AP story has it, a place where “party politics really does stop at the water’s edge”? Is it some kind of special and ineffable quality that a Republican from suburban Detroit described as “something about the Great Lakes that’s part of our DNA, I think”?

Without questioning the love our elected representatives may feel for the world’s most important freshwater resource, it can be noted that GLRI money so far has funded some 1,700 grants to various government, nonprofit, tribal and university programs in the basin.

Those programs in turn promote the health of the lakes as an economic engine as well as an environmental resource, and stimulate that engine with payrolls and purchases.

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It’s just bad politics to oppose that kind of spending in your own district. It’s smart politics to recognize it as an investment that pays returns of many kinds. Which is kind of how environmental politics used to be.

Benefits to Minnesota

Where does the money go in Minnesota?

Many of the grants are focused on projects designed to restore the St. Louis River and get it off the “rivers of concern” list, which is a key priority for federal, state and local agencies. It’s also an opportunity, in the view of the Star Tribune editorial board, for Minnesota to take a leadership role on an aspect of Great Lakes health here at the basin’s western tip (naturally I agree).

And, of course, it’s the nature of a basin-wide strategy of the kind that drives GLRI to focus an multistate and multi-agency undertakings.

But as I looked at the dots on the map above, I got curious about the details and found examples of interesting and highly local efforts that are beneficiaries of this investment strategy. Just a few examples:

  • “Restoring Lake Superior’s Streams One Neighborhood at a Time,” a project by Duluth Community Action to create a modern version of the Civilian Conservation Corps called the Duluth Stream Corps and put underemployed people to work restoring habitat and “green infrastructure” along streams draining to the St. Louis River and Lake Superior ($636,365).
  • Restoration of water quality in Amity Creek, a project by the University of Minnesota-Duluth’s Natural Resources Research Institute to restore a trout stream within the Duluth city limits through sediment-reducing tree plantings, better stormwater management and other measures — including the use of new mapping and monitoring tools that can be applied to other troubled streams in the Lake Superior basin and beyond.
  • A grant to Minnesota Trout Unlimited and partners for extensive habitat improvement in and along the Sucker River in Duluth ($100,000).
  • Grants to the Bois Forte band of Minnesota Chippewa for restoration of wetland ecosystems and improved wild rice production in the Nett Lake region (see page 12).  ($549,000).
  • A Minnesota Department of Natural Resources project to inventory riparian areas along the state’s tributaries feeding into Lake Superior as a first step toward a 25-year program of habitat protection and restoration ($285,714).

The list goes on, but I won’t, except to offer these resources for further exploration of GLRI’s important work:

  • A searchable, interactive map of GLRI grantmaking is available here.
  • A database of GLRI-funded projects, searchable by grantmaking agency, state or other criteria is here.
  • The program’s overall strategy plan for 2010-2014 is here.