Unsung Heroes

REGION – Remember the TV commercial from the early '70s in which a Native American cried when confronted with the pollution of his river and city?

The Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians hasn't just taken the message to heart, it has taken action.

The Band is in the forefront of several ecological efforts, from restoring watersheds to building an essentially green casino [see sidebar].

Desmond Berry wouldn't disagree. The Band's co-manager of natural resources oversees programs and projects for the tribe. They range from providing recycling programs and providing compact fluorescent bulbs for tribal members to creating wetlands management plans, even studying the feasibility of proposing a wind farm on tribal lands.

"We work with soil erosion and issue permits on tribal land for any development," said Berry. "We have a recycling program and an agreement with Leelanau County on a solid waste program."

Berry says projects large and small benefit the tribe and the surrounding environment. As one example, he points to the program which put 3,000 CFL bulbs in the hands and homes of tribal members.

"We put a project together around Earth Day," he said. "We worked out a program with Lowes and negotiated a really low price [on the bulbs] and exchanged them on a one-to-one basis. We collected 3,000 incandescents."

Berry also noted a wind study underway on tribal property in Grand Traverse County. Thanks to a DOE grant, they are able to look into the possibility of generating energy from wind.

The Band works on numerous larger-scae projects with various environmental and governmental groups, such as the Michigan Land Institute, the Grand Traverse and Leelanau Conservancies, and the Grand Traverse Conservation District.

"We've worked with them on several things," said Jenee Rowe, stewardship director at the Leelanau Conservancy.

Among the examples she cited are a partnership on Bellows Island, aka Gull Island, which serves as a rookery for herring gulls. The small gulls, which Rowe said have been around since Pleistocene times, are being displaced by ring-billed gulls and cormorants. The latter are an invasive species notorious for decimating fish populations, and here they are feeding on the walleye.

"They [the tribe] worry about the fish population, and we worry about the birds," said Rowe, citing the two different perspectives but shared goal that gives the two entities reason to work together. Rowe also points to Earth Day activities, where they would work together to plant trees, often in concert with schools.

Steve Largent, the Boardman River Program Coordinator for the Grand Traverse Conservation District, points to several projects involving the tribe that have helped restore streams and fish populations, including the Boardman River Dam and a bottomlands management plan.

"They've been a very strong player. They've been there through thick and thin," said Largent.

Thanks to the Band's EQIP (Environmental Quality Incentive Program) funding, Largent said they were able to address restore streams where fish were unable to make it upstream. For example, some perched culverts (culverts where the stream below was eroded to the point it effectively created a waterfall) were modified to allow fish to once again swim upstream.

"At the YMCA property, there was a crossing of Miller Ceek where the culvert is too small," Largent said. The result is that in times of heavy rainfall, the runoff would shoot from the culvert "like a hose when you put your thumb in it. That digs a big hole in the downstream side of the crossing and lowers the stream bed."

Berry's job and the tribe's mission encompass obviously numerous facets of environmental activity. They were actively involved in efforts to reintroduce the Coaster Brook Trout, a variety of the popular sport fish that exhibits migratory behaviors. Coasters spend most of their adult life in the open waters of the Great Lakes, where they can grow to exceptional size, before returning to spawn in the streams where they were born.

The tribe also works to reduce its energy consumption and its carbon footprint through a program called the Seventh Generation Initiative program that includes grant administration, internal education programs, outreach and partnerships with local, air shed, statewide, Lake Michigan, and Great Lakes entities, participation in task forces, and energy and emissions audits.

All told, it makes Berry's job a multi-faceted one. But it's a job he obviously enjoys, both for its impact on the tribe and the overall impact on the area. Go back to the CFL program. While it helped tribal members save money, Berry was just as excited about the environmental impact.

"It translated to taking approximately 170 vehicles off the road in terms of carbon output," he said. "It see that as a huge success." BN