Affecting Change One Video at a Time

Affecting Change One Video at a Time

By Glenn Maxham, Save Lake Superior Association – Lake Superior Basin

The Save Lake Superior Association (SLSA) is the oldest citizen group working exclusively to preserve and protect Lake Superior. It was organized to help stop the dumping of taconite tailings into Lake Superior, which threatened human health and contaminated the water and aquatic life. Lake Superior is cleaner today because of actions taken by SLSA. Among its many accomplishments to protect Lake Superior, SLSA successfully led efforts to stop blasting of two waterfalls and construction of a 400 foot fish migration tunnel on Duluth’s “scenic” waterfall at Lester River in Duluth, Minnesota.

Waterfalls on the rivers along the famous North Shore Drive of Minnesota began disappearing in March of 1933 — not from erosion, but at the hands of humans during a time when environmental concerns were minimal. The elimination of at least 50 beaver dams and lodges and subsequent drainage of the impounded water has been quietly carried out with little or no public exposure and with no scientific study of the impact on native aquatic stream life before or after the exotic members of the salmon family, the salmonids, were introduced to tributary streams of Lake Superior. Because the wisdom of removing or leveling waterfalls wasn’t publicly challenged for more than a half-century, by the time members of Save Lake Superior Association began its investigation, more than just the loss of waterfalls was at stake.

The central figures, in addition to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR – known as the State Game and Fish department in 1933) included sport fishing groups and, of course, the members of the non-native salmon family that were purposely introduced into the Great Lakes beginning in the late 1800s.

Once the immensity and complexity of the problem became apparent to us, we began a lengthy attempt to convince the DNR to halt its river-altering “management” practice. Despite our vigorous efforts, we were only mildly successful in communicating the many-faceted issue to local and regional residents. We had not developed a coherent, inclusive method of conveying the message that waterfall removal was, inextricably, an integral part of the management of exotic fish.

To garner the credibility essential for public acceptance of our claims, we knew we had to conduct our own scientific data search–and this could be done only with financial assistance. This is where the Great Lakes Aquatic Habitat Network and Fund helped with a grant.

Using Video to Address Major Issues

Upon receiving the grant from the Great Lakes Aquatic Habitat Network and Fund, we set out to document the impacts of waterfall and dam removal and exotic salmonids on Lake Superior, to aquatic life in its tributary streams, and to the natural geological features of these rivers. We realized that we needed personnel with impeccable credentials to be prepared for the chance of challenges to our findings. We employed two experts, one of which had once been a staff member of the DNR. Interestingly, the other had also worked under contract with the agency.

The aquatic biologist kept meticulous records, collected and preserved invertebrates and is prepared to defend his work if that need arises. He also illustrated his findings on charts and graphs. Additionally, to further establish the veracity of our field research, the entire procedure was videotaped. That footage, together with video segments I had taken over a period of years, produced a thirty-two minute DVD titled The Tale of the Beaver. The intent of The Tale of the Beaver is to promote restoration of the native aquatic life of Lake Superior and its tributary rivers and urge attrition of introduced “sports” fish. The DVD addresses erosion resulting from wetland drainage of beaver ponds, loss of the beaver-created wetland habitat needed for amphibians, waterfowl and some mammals failure of native brook trout to make a comeback due in part to the presence of non-native fish, and other lesser impacts of the exotics.

The overarching theme of the video was to collect, analyze and disseminate information to help citizens protect aquatic habitat and to bring a local issue to the attention of media and the public. Similar problems face neighboring Wisconsin and Michigan where stream alteration has also been a harmful practice. It is hoped that a successful campaign in Minnesota against such environmental destruction could then be used as a model to protect wetlands and rivers in those states.

Expert Review

Even though the DNR was subjected to considerable criticism, Save Lake Superior Association felt it was important for the agency to review the video. Copies were sent to several people within the highest managerial level at the agency and to others who serve below them in March of 2005, as well as to seventeen environmental organizations in Minnesota and Wisconsin. A copy was also submitted to the Minnesota Sea Grant office in Duluth and to a director in the EPA’s Mid-Continent Ecology Division. All recipients were asked to submit a constructive critique focusing on the accuracy of statements made within the video.

We are pleased to report that the DVDs were reviewed by these officials. At the direction of DNR Commissioner Gene Merriam, his director of the Division of Fish and Wildlife, John Gunther, sent me a two page response. Significantly, Mr. Gunther did not question the findings and facts documented in the DVD. He stated that his agency is in the process of revising the Fisheries Management Plan for Minnesota’s portion of Lake Superior and is,“…working with a variety of stakeholders, of which your group is one. It is through this type of process and citizen input that many of our management strategies are influenced.”

While our battle continues, we are influencing state agencies to adapt management strategies to protect waterfalls by effectively communicating current practices through our DVD and how we hope to affect change. Because there are no state statutes or rules that eliminate the practice of waterfall removal, Save Lake Superior Association is concentrating on the importance of contacting our regional legislators to author a bill making future waterfall removal illegal. Realizing that a reversal of DNR management practices will ultimately be in the hands of informed state legislators, our next target audience is these lawmakers.

Finally, anyone who would like a free copy of The Tale of the Beaver may get it by sending a request to me via e-mail. My address is or call me at 218-727-4554.

By Glenn Maxham, Vice-President
Save Lake Superior Association
1902 St. Louis Avenue, Apt 319, Duluth, MN 55802
218-727-4554 •

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