Birders flock to the Capitol to urge lawmakers to pass bills to improve the environment

Birders flock to the Capitol to urge lawmakers to pass bills to improve the environment
June 11, 2024 Michigan Public

By Lester Graham, Michigan Public

The Great Lakes News Collaborative includes Bridge Michigan; Circle of Blue; Great Lakes Now at Detroit Public Television; Michigan Public, Michigan’s NPR News Leader; and  who work together to bring audiences news and information about the impact of climate change, pollution, and aging infrastructure on the Great Lakes and drinking water. This independent journalism is supported by the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation. Find all the work HERE.

Some people who love birds visited legislators Tuesday to let them know they support bills that help the environment, people, and their feathered friends.

The birder group Audubon Great Lakes is greatly concerned about the decline of bird populations and its connection to the decline of habitat. Its leaders asked members to join them for the group’s very first advocacy day at the Michigan Capitol. A few of the more than 43,000 members from around the state showed up to sit face to face with their legislators to encourage them to vote for several environmental initiatives. They include clean energy, community solar, green infrastructure, and wetlands.

  • Fully implement and protect the Clean Energy Future Package, including an investment of $6 million in the budget to fund Michigan Public Service Commission staff.
  • Support SB 152, which would create the first community solar project in the state.
  • Support $2 million for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources to acquire and conserve wetlands throughout the state, and
  • Support $10 million to the Water Infrastructure Initiative – Green Infrastructure Project to encourage local municipalities to restore and conserve wetlands and undertake other proactive strategies before flooding events occur.

“They want to hear what you have to say, the decision makers want to hear what you have to say, way more than they want to hear what I have to say. Your stories are really, really what matters,” Marnie Urso told the members. Urso is Audubon Great Lakes’ Senior Policy Director.

Audubon Great Lakes Senior Policy Director Marnie Urso speaks before group members who spent Tuesday talking with legislators about environmental legislation. (Photo Credit: Lester Graham)

She said wetlands are a high priority.

“We’ve lost over 50% of the wetlands here in Michigan. It’s a really important habitat for birds, but it’s also a really important service for communities to mitigate flooding and other things.”

She added that all the different environmental bills seem to be disconnected, but they’re not. For instance, according to Audubon’s research, climate change is a huge threat to birds. She says more than three-quarters of the birds in North America are at risk due to climate change.

“And that does also lead to unpredictable and more extreme precipitation events. So, things like wetlands that can store about a million gallons of water for every one acre of wetlands are really crucial to help stem that and protect communities and habitats from those increased weather events that we’re seeing.”

The green infrastructure proposal that the group supports would make money available for local municipalities to restore or conserve wetlands.

An example was a park with a drainage ditch running through it. That run off could be captured by a bioswale, a depression full of native plants with deep roots. Instead of rushing through the park, the water could be soaked into the earth.

Gretchen Abrams is with the Detroit Bird Alliance. She said wetlands are a tough sell in her area. That’s because many people think they’re not attractive.

“Being attractive in a really densely populated area is pretty important,” Abrams said.

She encourages them to visit the Milliken Park on Detroit’s waterfront to see how beautiful a wetland can be.

She also reminds them that remnants of wetlands along the shores help mitigate floods.

“It’s incredibly beneficial. I’m thinking about the Saint Clair flat. Huge freshwater delta, huge wetlands. That’s all upstream. So, guess what that wetland is doing for all of us down in Detroit downstream of that?”

From across the state, Spencer High with the the Grand Rapids Audubon Club was thinking about legislators of both parties and the points he wants to emphasize about wetlands.

“They have incredibly important roles within our pollination process, and without the specific plants to feed, the specific insects to feed the specific birds, you don’t have balance.”

And while he personally thinks birds are really cool, he says those insects, and the rest of the ecosystem, also hang in the balance.

Steve Chadwick is with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. He outlined several of the wetland projects underway thanks to more than 12 million dollars in funding, much of it from American Rescue Plan Act. That might sound like a lot of money, but restoring wetlands is really expensive.

“A $12 million dollar investment is a great place to start, but we’ve got a long ways to go.”

Of that, Ducks Unlimited administered $4 million for ten projects to reduce agricultural nutrient runoff into Lake Erie and Saginaw Bay.

More ARPA money went to land acquisitions to add to the Crow Island State Game Area, a large wetland which straddles Bay and Saginaw counties.

Another chunk went to the Lenawee County Nutrient Reduction Pilot Project. The plan there is to restore a wetland in an agricultural drain system to help filter out phosphorus and nitrogen before it gets into Lake Erie. So far, 300 acres have been purchased for that project.

Chadwick says previously, almost all the money for wetlands was funded by duck and goose hunters through fees. That resulted in fantastic wetlands for ducks and geese, but marginal habitat for other wetland birds. The new money is going toward wetlands more attractive to non-game bird species and as mentioned, reducing nutrient pollution in the western basin of Lake Erie where huge toxic cyanobacterial blooms appear each summer.

State Representative Laurie Pohutsky chairs the House Natural Resources, Environment, Tourism, and Outdoor Recreation Committee.

She agrees with Chadwick about the 12 million dollars.

“This is the beginning of an investment. These are very, very expensive projects. And they’re also something that, frankly, we weren’t taking very good care of up until recently. So, it’s going to take a lot of money, but it’s obviously worth it,” Pohutsky said.

During a short address to the Audubon Great Lakes birders about to meet the legislators, she told them they have a distinct advantage.

“I have a lot of colleagues that have very strong and frankly, negative opinions about things like solar panels and wind turbines, but no one has anything bad to say about birds.”

She said she thinks much of what the Audubon Great Lakes group wants is supported by Democrats and Republicans.

But lately politics has taken center stage. Pohutsky said sometimes Republicans are voting against things they’ve previously supported because they don’t like how Democrats, who have the majority, are handling the legislative process.

Catch more news at Great Lakes Now: 

Great Lakes Moment: Birds of a feather flock together

Featured image: A green heron catches a fish in a small roadside wetland in Lenawee County. (Photo Credit: Lester Graham/Michigan Public)


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