Using Communications to Redefine the Issue ‘Weeds’ to Wetlands

Using Communications to Redefine the Issue ‘Weeds’ to Wetlands

By Terry Miller, Lone Tree Council – Lake Huron Basin

It is far too early to declare a success in preserving Michigan’s emerging coastal wetlands. In truth, probably every generation will have to tackle assaults on these vital ecosystems. However, thanks to a Great Lakes Aquatic Habitat Network and Fund grant, more children, more college students, and more sportspeople are aware of the important role coastal wetlands play in cleaning our drinking water, stocking our fisheries, and creating habitat for a myriad of land animals and waterfowl. And their voices are beginning to be heard.

Defining the Issue

As most readers know by now, home and cottage owners around Saginaw Bay successfully lobbied to modify Michigan’s coastal wetland protection rules allowing greater mowing of habitat, swifter permits, and more ‘grooming’ of beaches in specific areas. In great part, this was because of their success in defining the issue: property owners against big government,‘weeds’ versus sandy beaches, and health and tourism over mosquito infested, stagnant water. Their success in framing the issue came in part from media and citizens’ woeful lack of understanding of the ecology of Saginaw Bay and the importance of coastal wetlands.

Saginaw Bay has a coastal ecology characterized as marsh wetland, but on its southwest rim, has several tracts of sandy beach. Bay City State Recreation Area, the only area available to the public, is the border between ecosystems, and manifests aspects of both sand and marsh. During the latter half of the twentieth century, both western and eastern shores of Saginaw Bay were sold to developers. Today, cottages and permanent homes crowd each other.

When lake levels were high, the problems these owners faced were erosion of foundations and winter ice packs crashing through bay windows. Fixed sea walls, like some fortress Europa, were the response. In 2000, however, nature offered up another snag in her amazing capacity to thwart human desire – declining water levels.

The sea walls became historical curiosities, as the water receded and receded and receded. Soon the shoreline extended outward hundreds of feet to silty soft waves. The newly exposed bottomland stirred the dormant life once buried under water, and bulrushes sprouted; seeds carried from birds introduced other vegetation including cattails, and occasionally, the invasive plant species, phragmites.

Not to be deterred, property owners assumed the role they felt they had by proprietary right. Instead of walls to protect their homes, however, they would extend and maintain the nature of their beaches waterward; they would buy tractors, and attach clawed drags, or steel circular disks or plows, and dig up, slash through, plow up, and destroy this new assault on their right to access the water. Or hire the process out to others.

Not considered in this self-interest equation was the benefit to the public of this perceived battery to “their” beaches. The period of high water had dulled memories, and for property owners the “grooming” of the beaches had been basic to their lifestyle. Insisting that they owned to the shoreline, they resented the growing regulatory intrusion into their lives that declining water levels brought. They defined this new vegetation as “weeds” and would commence what the Bay City Times would label the “Battle of the Weeds.”

Changing the Game

We were able to use a multi-faceted approach to communicate the importance of wetlands and reframe the issue. We succeeded in getting a wetland video produced by Tip of the MittWatershed Council repeatedly aired on Community Access Television.We challenged local media each time we caught them defining the issue according to property owners.We met with high school students and regularly gave presentations to freshmen in an Environmental Dynamics class at Saginaw Valley State University.

Working in collaboration with the Michigan Wetland Action Coalition, we purchased a full-color ad in the Bay City Times. The ad was meant to help readers make the connection between healthy water and healthy wetlands. The ad tries to point out that in order to protect our precious wetlands we need state and federal agencies to enforce our environmental laws.

To reach a new audience, Lone Tree Council recently joined forces with a highly motivated angler, Brian Weber, who was tired of reading about the Saginaw River and Bay deluged with raw or partially treated human sewage every time it rained, as well as the recent discovery of high levels of dioxin in the river and bay sediment. Together we created a petition to Governor Jennifer Granholm calling for action. Brian has been out on the ice, inside sportsmen’s clubs, and out to bait shops – and the support has been overwhelming.Within a little more than a week, Brian collected 430 signatures and received requests for petitions nearly every day. This is an important constituency of the river and bay that has hitherto been silent – no longer.

Perhaps we are on the verge of changing the game, turning weeds to wetlands, only time will tell, but we are grateful for GLAHNF’s support of our effort to turn things around.

By Terry Miller
Lone Tree Council
4649 David Ct., Bay City, MI 48706
(989) 686-6386 • terbar@charter.net

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