The importance of “framing” issues is becoming increasingly recognized in environmental advocacy circles around the Great Lakes. A frame is basically the lens through which we think about an issue. For example, taxes can be framed as providing the infrastructure and services vital to a healthy society, or taxes can be framed as an affliction from which to be relieved.
Given the recent emphasis on framing issues in advocacy work, it is fitting that the Great Lakes Aquatic Habitat Network and Fund has chosen communications as its theme for 2005. And it was timely that two recent wetland issues near Bay City, Michigan were being wrongly framed by some as a rogue government agency infringing on private property rights.Wishing to take back the debate, the Lone Tree Council – an environmental advocacy group based in Bay City – applied for and received a GLAHNF Special Opportunity Grant to support the beginning of a campaign to reframe this issue.
In November, the Bay City Times published a story about a local family who was issued a warning from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. The warning was issued after an agency staff person had been notified of large piles (700 cubic yards) of fill dirt on the family’s property, which consisted largely of a forested wetland. The Bay City Times story reported that the family’s intention was to fill in the wetland to create a backyard for their young children. A neighbor was quoted as saying,“They’re trying to better their property and they’re getting harassed for it and that’s wrong.” Soon after these stories appeared in print, a story aired on the local ABC affiliate which gave voice to a father and son being prosecuted for wetland violations, as well as an infamous wetland destroyer. It was quickly clear that the issue needed to be re-framed.
With a Special Opportunity Grant from GLAHNF,The Lone Tree Council and the Michigan Wetland Action Coalition created a full color print ad that was placed in the Bay City Times. The groups also sent a letter to local editors and television stations with the message that Wetland regulations are in place to protect the public’s interest in our water resources, now and in the future. Knowing that wetlands provide valuable functions that go beyond property boundaries, it follows that individual actions that degrade wetland functions will have impacts beyond the property boundaries that result in harm to the public. It is precisely these impacts that wetland regulations seek to avoid and minimize.
The Lone Tree Council and the Michigan Wetland Action Coalition plan to continue to communicate the importance of wetlands in Bay City and throughout the Great Lakes. Thankfully we are not starting at square one with developing messages. Groups like the Wisconsin Wetlands Association, the Biodiversity Project, and others have already created frames through which to communicate the importance of wetland protection and regulation. The Lone Tree Council and the Michigan Wetland Action Coalition are also excited to utilize the materials available in the Great Lakes Connecting Communities “toolbox” in 2005. By re-framing the issue of wetland regulation, or any other aquatic habitat issue, we can take back the debate that is so crucial to protecting these resources.