First International Wildlife Refuge Formed Due to Work of Grassroots Advocates

First International Wildlife Refuge Formed Due to Work of Grassroots Advocates

By Jeannine Ansley, The Friends of the Detroit River, Inc.

The Friends of the Detroit River (FDR) was formed in 1993 and received its first grant from the Great Lakes Aquatic Habitat Network and Fund in 1998. This grant helped FDR inform the public of threats to Humbug Marsh, a threatened natural treasure along the Detroit River. This focused campaign created a ten-fold growth in the FDR membership, and the organization’s income jumped from less than $5,000 per year to $50,000 during the period of the grant. FDR has no paid employees; all work is accomplished through volunteers. Our main resource has been people willing to donate their time, energy, talents, and money to protection efforts along the Detroit River.

A GLAHNF grant in 2000 helped FDR think collaboratively, forming a coalition group, Help Uncover the Gem (HUG), to provide restoration and cleanup on Belle Isle (an island in the Detroit River). At the same time, FDR worked with three other watershed groups, bringing awareness to needs of the Rouge River, the Clinton River, and the Huron River. These and other GLAHNF grants have helped FDR move their work forward on many fronts. In 1998, the Detroit River was declared one of only fourteen National Heritage Rivers, and in 2001 a Canadian Heritage River, encouraging examples of two countries working together to protect the same resource.

The most recent feather in FDR’s cap was the formation, on December 21, 2001, of the first-ever international wildlife refuge, the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge, which now protects 18 miles of the lower Detroit River. Those on our mailing list received a newsletter that detailed the unchecked pollution problems in a summary of a 36-page document, Dereliction of Duty. In another newsletter we highlighted the Wildlife Refuge bill. FDR holds workshops for Board Members and meetings for the general membership. These have been well attended and enthusiastically received. The Great Lakes Aquatic Habitat Network and Fund and the U.S. Park Service awarded grants to FDR which assisted us in building our organization, publicizing open hearings, publishing newsletters, and increasing our membership from 35 members to over 500 dues-paying members. Also, because of these grants, we were better able to play an efficient and effective advocacy role.

What do you consider the key to your success?

The keys to our successes have been tenacious persistence and continued effort.

How would you outline the steps you took to organize your project in order to advise another group working on a similar project?

1. Call open meetings, issue news releases, distribute flyers to members and those on your mailing list.

2. Present the problems and possibilities.

3. Conduct fundraisers, not only for the funds they raise, but also for the publicity generated.

4. Conduct awareness-raising activities and have displays at public activities (such as River Day, River Walk, and Waterfest).

5. Increase membership by appointing a dedicated, well-organized member to head up the membership committee, and budget for several mass mailings.

What have the effects of this effort been on your organization’s work?

We are ecstatic, energized, becoming more knowledgeable about water issues, and working even harder and better. We now have 15 board members and 5 advisors who are all willing to pitch in and help.

How has the project affected your community?

Community and environmental groups have come to respect Friends of the Detroit River. They have seen that we listen to the needs and actively engage in proactive activities to investigate, educate, and call for support. More and more, the communities need to be a part of what happens next.

What particular stumbling blocks, challenges, or defeats did you encounter?

Backlashes against environmental causes will be expected. Refuges do not pay taxes and there are many government officials and others for whom that is all that matters.

How many people were involved?

Initially: There were 35 original members.

Finally: FDR now has 609 dues-paying members and 5,000 people who have shown an interest in one or more environmental activities and who are now on our mailing list.

FDR has at least six board members who work the equivalent hours to be considered full-time, all for no compensation. Other board members do not devote as much time, but are available as needed. The number of people-hours spent on the various Detroit River projects over the years is huge.

How was public involvement motivated and facilitated?

Motivation was developed through newsletters, task force meetings, our annual meetings, phone calls, e-mail, and a wide variety of contacts with people who expressed an interest in the environment.

How was public education a component of your program?

Newsletters were sent to all schools in Wayne County in addition to 4,000 selected from our mailing list.

What was the primary means of communications?

Our major forms of communications are newsletters, flyers, and e-mail; however, we do a good deal of networking face-to-face.

What resources were available/acquired/tapped into?

Over the last few years, FDR has been awarded about $8,000 in various grants. We received no grants from anywhere in 2001. Our finances for 2000-2001 came from memberships, donations, and FDR-conducted fundraisers: a pasta dinner, a Detroit River Cruise, and a 50/50 raffle.

What level and types of media exposure were you able to obtain and how did it affect/assist your efforts?

The local bi-weekly papers as well as the Detroit papers have given FDR excellent coverage of our activities. The Great Lakes Aquatic Habitat Network and Fund included FDR in its publication of success stories in 2001 and also published periodic stories on our successes in their bi-monthly newsletter, The Great Lakes Aquatic Habitat News.

Other comments that you feel would be helpful to other grassroots organizations working on similar projects.

Don’t quit! Keep the pressure on the corporations to clean up their acts. Show your support for regulations and legislation that are pro-environment by writing letters and e-mailing the appropriate officials. Network with groups of similar interest.

The Friends of the Detroit River, Inc.
Jeannine Ansley, FDR Executive Director
-or- Don Griffin
P.O. Box 3099
Melvindale, MI 48122
(313) 381-2835 E-mail:
-or – E-mail:

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