Lake Michigan Federation – Citizen Action to Protect a Great Lake

Lake Michigan Federation – Citizen Action to Protect a Great Lake

By: Joel Brammeier

I’ll admit: my first memories of life on the Great Lakes are not all that positive. Although the fruits of my family’s dinghy expeditions into Saginaw Bay were the delicious yellow perch fish fries at week’s end,my most vivid recollection is leaning over the side of the aluminum boat and wishing my father would just wrap up for the day so we could head in. The overwhelming power of Lake Huron’s waves at Pinery Provincial Park in Ontario on an overcast day sticks in my mind as well. Of course I recall the experience as my nearly drowning, though I’m sure it wasn’t quite that serious.

In time, my attitude towards the lakes changed and matured, and I began to relish any opportunities available to get out on a boat, which seemed to become few and far between as I grew older. By determining the right stance and by employing a bit of common sense, I found I could stand up to the breakers coming across a favorite sandbar and eventually would spend hours in the water. The relatively few yellow perch hitting our lines in the late 1980s had me wondering what was going on underneath it all.

My early attachment to the Great Lakes served as a springboard into my work as manager of habitat programs at the Lake Michigan Federation. As the oldest citizen-based Great Lakes organization in the country, the Federation has a long history of supporting the protection and restoration of aquatic habitats in the same vein as GLAHNF. Founded in 1970 by acclaimed citizen activist Lee Botts, we work on a number of levels:

  • Locally to help citizens protect habitats in their backyards
  • Partnering lakewide with a coalition whose members share common interests
  • Advocating and advising on Great Lakes policy at the state and federal level


To accomplish this work, the Federation maintains a multi-disciplinary staff across two offices in Chicago and Michigan. With in-house legal capabilities, long experience working with communities to eliminate contaminated sediment problems, professional educators on staff, progressive thinking on habitat restoration, and a strong network of volunteers, the Federation is well positioned to provide solutions to Great Lakes problems by working through strategic partnerships.

Our efforts as the Illinois Hub of GLAHNF are somewhat unique.The Lake Michigan shoreline in Illinois is a minute 63 miles, and the watershed pales next to giants like Ontario. Likewise, we lack the tremendous expanses of coastal wetlands found in Green Bay or the massive dunes of west Michigan. But what Illinois lacks in ecosystem quality, it makes up for in quantity – of people. Home to the largest city in the Great Lakes basin, Illinois is also home to a burgeoning network of urban environmental activists.

Working locally with this Hub network, the Federation has found that a primary result of removal of most natural habitats is a fierce devotion in citizens to protect and enhance what remains. Birders in Illinois have taken ownership of the migratory flyway that traces Chicago’s shoreline. Neighborhood organizations have worked with the Federation to restore habitat and open space in the Lake Calumet and Wolf Lake regions. Citizens from Waukegan, when not focused on cleaning up the contaminated sediments in the local harbor, are working to restore dunes and wetlands near the Waukegan River.

My favorite part of working as a Hub has to be seeing up close how protection and restoration of habitats works hand in hand with enhancement of the quality of life in an urban setting. Nowhere is it more apparent than in Illinois what tremendous value city dwellers place on their local “special places,” whether that means the scenery of Illinois Beach State Park, a tiny patch of marram grass on Chicago’s shoreline, or a waterway that clings to a remnant of biological diversity despite a century of industrial encroachment.

The Federation values the opportunity to work both at the community level and to impact Great Lakes policy on a broader scale. While it can be difficult to balance these efforts, our involvement with GLAHNF ensures that our work at the state and federal level is always informed by those who know the lakes best – the citizens. You can contact Joel in the Lake Michigan Federation’s Chicago office at 312-939-0838 ext. 4 or by e-mail at For more information about the Federation’s wide array of environmental programs see our website at


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Images courtesy of Steven Huyser-Honig,
West Grand Boulevard Collaborative, & Yellow Dog Watershed Preserve.