U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., visited the University of Michigan Matthaei Botanical Gardens Wednesday to discuss the impacts of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) following the $1 billion in federal infrastructure funding the initiative received last year.

Dingell represents Michigan’s 12th Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives. She was joined by members of various environmental and wildlife organizations, such as nonprofit organization Ducks Unlimited and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, to hear how GLRI funding has supported those groups’ local conservation efforts.

The $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill, which was signed into law by President Joe Biden last November, allocated an additional $1 billion to the (GLRI). Established in 2009, the GLRI works to protect wildlife and restore habitats by eliminating threats to the Great Lakes ecosystems such as pollution, contamination and invasive species.

Kyle Rorah, Ducks Unlimited regional director of public policy, said the GLRI as well as the Great Lakes Fish and Wildlife Restoration Act of 1990,vital to collaborative conservation efforts, benefitted Americans across the country despite the initial monetary costs that go into these programs. 

“These programs are just incredible,” Rorah said. “When you think about the multiple benefits that ecological restoration provides communities, the value delivered back to society (and) to wildlife, far outpaces the upfront investment.”

Dingell weighed in on the importance of environmental preservation efforts and how ecosystems such as the Great Lakes play a crucial role in U.S. infrastructure.

“The Great Lakes are one of the most critical parts of our infrastructure,” Dingell said. “They (make up) 90% of fresh water in the United States and 21% of fresh water in the world.”

Mike Kost, associate curator at Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum, discussed how the GLRI supported the organization’s prairie fen restoration project in the botanical gardens last year by cutting invasive species such as the common and glossy buckthorn shrubs.

“We worked on (this) for 10 years to open this (area) up to create a habitat for the Massasauga rattlesnake … (and) over 100 native species of 100 native plants,” Kost said.

Marc Gaden, environment and sustainability professor and communications director of the Great Lakes Fishery Commission, discussed how GLRI funding allows the commission to control destructive invasive species, such as the sea lamprey, in the Great Lakes.

“We’ve reduced the (lamprey) population by about 90%,” Gaden said. “So instead of losing about 110 million pounds of fish a year, we lose about maybe 10 or 12 million. Still a lot, but it’s an order of magnitude less (than before). The fishery has rebounded tremendously since we started this.”

Dingell emphasized the importance of raising awareness among the general public about the need for nature conservation and the conservation efforts that are already underway. 

“People don’t know that this kind of work is being done, they don’t know why it’s being done, they don’t know how critical it is,” Dingell said. “We’ve got to find a way to educate people about … what is happening and why (conservation) matters and why we have to invest (in our ecosystems).”

Daily Staff Reporter Irena Li can be reached at irenayli@umich.edu.