The White House Council on Environmental Quality last year identified seven important landscapes for conservation and restoration, naming among others the Hawaiian Islands, Washington’s Puget Sound, the Florida Everglades and a section of the Great Lakes — a 6.3 million-acre stretch of coastal wetlands from Saginaw Bay on southern Lake Huron to western Lake Erie.

Research Scientist Matt Cooper at the Northland College Burke Center for Freshwater Innovation has been researching this region that spans Lake Huron, Lake St. Clair, and Lake Erie. “The hope is that the work on Lake Erie and Lake Huron will act as a prototype for estuary systems in all the Great Lakes,” Cooper said.

Historically much of the shoreline in the Lake Huron-Erie region was coastal wetland but a “perfect storm” of degradation has dramatically altered the ecosystem. “These ecosystems have been hit hard by residential development and expansion of harbors, by intense pressure from metropolitan areas and high intensity row crop agriculture,” Cooper said.

Cooper and collaborators at the Natural Resources Research Institute at University of Minnesota-Duluth and Central Michigan University’s Institute for Great Lakes Research have focused on this region in an effort to build a better system for restoration and protection. “The idea is to protect what we have and restore what we can—and keep in mind that wetland restoration has an economic side,” Cooper said.

The annual value of Great Lakes fisheries is estimated at $7 billion and a majority of Great Lakes fish species use coastal wetlands at some point in their life cycle, Cooper said, “If you consider other benefits such as improving water quality and providing flood protection the value of coastal wetlands adds up very quickly.”

The White House Resilient Lands and Waters Initiative highlights southern Lake Huron and western Lake Erie as a region facing a range climate impacts and other ecological stressors related to climate change, such as extreme water level fluctuations, drought, wildfire, and invasive species.

The purpose of the initiative is to create and enhance tools for coastal wetland and marine conservation, protection of drinking water for urban areas, and providing habitat for wildlife.

In the Great Lakes, Cooper and his collaborators have collected and analyzed data on land use practices, water quality, aquatic life and the people who use, recreate and rely on the lake and what they value. From this, they will develop a coastal wetland prioritization tool to determine where restoration efforts are most needed.

The $200,000 project is funded by the Upper Midwest and Great Lakes Landscape Conservation Cooperative — a collective of agencies, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Coastal Program. “This project will help our organization and other conservation practitioners make critical decisions on where to invest in wetland restoration and protection,” said Brad Potter, Science Coordinator for the cooperative, who is with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The finished product, scheduled for October, will be a web-based interface that will provide information on fish and wildlife, water quality, human population density and recreation. “We’re filling a data gap with this,” Cooper said. “So when funders make decisions on where to put their restoration and protection dollars, they’ll be better equipped to make science-based decisions.”

For example, Cooper said, the Environmental Protection Agency has funded a comprehensive coastal wetland monitoring program for restoring, protecting and enhancing 60,000 acres of coastal wetlands over the next five years. “Where the money is spent will affect coastal ecosystem health,” Cooper said. “There’s money available to improve coastal wetlands — tools like we’re developing will make sure the money is spent in the best way possible.”

Cooper says he’s secured funding to expand this project throughout Michigan — and next hopes to add the south shore of Lake Superior, which includes Kakagon, Bad River, Fish Creek and Sioux River sloughs, Barrier Beach wetlands on Stockton Island and St. Louis River estuary.

“So many coastal communities are struggling to make decisions about how to protect and restore their water, and how to deal with public health issues like the dangerous algal blooms that shut Toledo’s water supply down for two days,” Cooper said. “If we can help them make science-based decisions, we will have succeeded.”


Cooper will give the inaugural presentation of the newly formed Marvin Pertzik World Water Day Lecture Series Wednesday, May 4 at Northland College.

Marvin Pertzik, a St. Paul attorney, was key in assisting the Mary Livingston Griggs & Mary Griggs Burke Foundation in making a $10 million endowment to Northland College in 2015. The endowment supports the staff and work of the Mary Griggs Burke Center for Freshwater Innovation, now in its first year.

“We are thrilled to name this lecture series after Marvin — he has dedicated his career to helping others achieve their philanthropic vision,” said Northland College President Michael A. Miller. “And is an ardent supporter of conservation and preservation of the the unique natural resources in the north woods of Wisconsin.”