Blog: John Hartig

Dr. John Hartig is trained as a limnologist with 30 years of practical experience in environmental science and natural resource management.  He currently serves as refuge manager for the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge and serves on the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy.  

From 1999 to 2004 he served as river navigator for the Greater Detroit American Heritage River Initiative established by presidential executive order.  Prior to becoming river navigator, he spent 12 years working for the International Joint Commission on the Canada-U.S. Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement.  John has also been an adjunct professor at Wayne State University, where he taught environmental management and sustainable development.  

He has authored or co-authored over 100 publications on the Great Lakes, including writing one book (Burning Rivers) and co-editing two others (Honoring Our Detroit River, Caring for Our Home and Under RAPs: Toward Grassroots Ecological Democracy in the Great Lakes Basin).

John has received a number of awards for his work, including a 2010 Green Leaders Award from the Detroit Free Press; a 2005 White House Conference on Cooperative Conservation Award for Outstanding Leadership and Collaboration in the Great Lakes; the 2003 Anderson-Everett Award from the International Association for Great Lakes Research; and the 1993 Sustainable Development Award for Civic Leadership from Global Tomorrow Coalition.

John Hartig - Most Recent Posts:

Post 5: Detroit RiverWalk – Sharing the Dream

It is a bright sunny spring day as I walk along the Detroit RiverWalk.  Chilly winds off the river remind me how cold the water still is at this time of year.  These cold winds, however, do not detract from the spectacular view of the 980-acre Belle Isle – the crown jewel of Detroit's park system.  People walk by me smiling as they also enjoy the view of Canada, waterfowl on the river, and freighters going by.  

There clearly is something special about water.  People all over the world flock to it for rest and relaxation, and for recreation and renewal.  Water just seems to calm the soul.  Water can also redefine a place, can help join neighborhoods and communities together, and can reconnect us to the natural world.  

Most people will agree that open and accessible waterfronts are important gathering places where people can meet one another.  Waterfront gathering places are an even more important factor to the next generation.  That is precisely why the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy is building the Detroit RiverWalk.  The Detroit RiverWalk is a dream come true for this generation and a gift to future generations.

It started with bringing a group of riverfront stakeholders together nearly a decade ago to develop the following vision for a transformed Detroit riverfront:

The historic Detroit River is a gathering place for Detroiters, their families, friends and visitors - a place where people want to live, work and play.  The riverfront illustrates our ability to provide stewardship of our environment, confirms our ability to connect and care for our people and channels sustainable economic development for the benefit of all. Our riverfront is transformed and we are recognized as an outstanding global community.

This was not the first attempt to create public spaces along the Detroit River, but this time it had seed money from The Kresge Foundation, General Motors, and other entities that could leverage federal and state monies, and it had the strong support of the people to make it happen.  And now the dream is coming true!  

Over $110 million has been raised for the first 3.5-mile phase of the Detroit RiverWalk called the East Riverfront.  Three miles of the East Riverfront are complete, with another half mile to come.  The West Riverfront is in the final planning stages and will add another two miles to the walkway.  If you have not been down to the Detroit RiverWalk, you must come and see and experience it.

The Detroit RiverWalk now offers year-round programming, with cross country skiing, ice fishing in the harbors of Milliken State Park and Gabriel Richard Park, and the Detroit Polar Plunge in winter.  Examples of what is coming in spring, summer, and fall include: a March of Dimes March for Babies walk on May 1; the Downtown Hoedown on May 13-15; Eastern Market Flower Day on May 17; Movement 2011 on May 28-30; Motor City Pride on June 4-5; a Fun-n-Fish Day on June 11; a River Days 5K and Fun Run on June 25; the signature Detroit River Days Festival on June 24-26 that features maritime events, music, carnival rides; "The Taste of Detroit" food court, and more; Rockin' on the River concerts on July 8, 15, and 22; and the Detroit Free Press Marathon on October 16.  

If that is not enough to get you excited, there are opportunities to join a Riverwalkers Club, a Canine Club, and a Yoga on the Riverfront Club, or you can just splash in the fountains of GM Plaza, take a ride on the carousel at Rivard Plaza, or ride a bike along the Detroit RiverWalk and up the Dequindre Cut to Eastern Market. As the warm weather is coming and you make your plans for doing things with your family and friends, remember the Detroit RiverWalk and come and experience the dream come true.

Detroit RiverWalk photo courtesy of Detroit Riverfront Conservancy

Post 4: Happy 10th Birthday, Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge!

In 2000, then Canadian Deputy Prime Minister Herb Grey, U.S. Congressman John Dingell, and the late Peter Stroh charged a group of scientists and managers to define a desired future state for the Detroit River ecosystem. The output of that 2000 visioning workshop was a consensus document titled "A Conservation Vision for the Lower Detroit River Ecosystem." All U.S. and Canadian participants agreed to the following:

In ten years the lower Detroit River ecosystem will be an international conservation region where the health and diversity of wildlife and fish are sustained through protection of existing significant habitats and rehabilitation of degraded ones, and where the resulting ecological, recreational, economic, educational, and "quality of life" benefits are sustained for present and future generations.

This vision was then used by Congressman John Dingell to introduce legislation creating the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge that was signed into law by the President of the United States in 2001.  Canada responded by using a number of existing Canadian laws to work in a similar fashion.  North America’s only international wildlife refuge was born.

This year marks the 10th birthday of our refuge.  In ten years, we have seen:

  • The refuge grow from 300 acres to over 5,700 acres devoted to conservation
  • The preservation of Humbug Marsh, the last mile of natural shoreline on the U.S. mainland of the Detroit River, and its incorporation into the refuge in 2004
  • The designation of Humbug Marsh as a "Wetland of International Importance" under the Ramsar Convention (1,900 Ramsar sites have been designated throughout the world, 29 in the United States, and only one in Michigan)
  • The 2005 documentation of lake whitefish reproduction in the Detroit River for the first time since 1916
  • Our region singled out at the 2005 White House Conference on Cooperative Conservation for leadership in public-private partnerships for cooperative conservation
  • The creation of a ByWays to FlyWays bird driving tour in 2007 that highlights 27 exceptional birding sites in southeast Michigan and southwest Ontario
  • FLW Outdoors host the Chevy Open fishing tournament in 2008 that offered $1.5 million in prize money
  • The 2008 construction of the Fighting Island sturgeon reef that represented the first-ever Canada-U.S. funded fish habitat restoration project in the Great Lakes
  • The 2009 documentation of lake sturgeon reproduction on the Fighting Island reef, representing the first time in 30 years that lake sturgeon reproduction had been confirmed in the Canadian waters of the Detroit River
  • The 2009 documentation of osprey reproduction in Gibraltar, representing the first successful nesting in Wayne County since the 1890s
  •  The 2010 designation of the Detroit River as an "Important Bird Area" by The Audubon Society
  • The 2011 designation of Detroit as one of the top ten metropolitan areas for waterfowl hunting by Ducks Unlimited
  • Restoration of common tern (threatened species in Michigan) habitat at three locations in the Detroit River
  • The daylighting of Monguagon Creek at the Refuge Gateway in Trenton and the restoration of 67 acres of coastal wetlands at the refuge's Brancheau Unit in Monroe County; and
  • The completion of 38 soft shoreline engineering projects in the watershed    

Clearly, much has been accomplished, yet much remains to be done.  The Refuge's Comprehensive Conservation Plan calls for the refuge to grow to 12,000 acres.  The potential on the Canadian side is even greater.  I would not be surprised to see our international wildlife refuge grow to 25,000 acres in the next ten years.  This would be an amazing accomplishment and a gift to future generations.  Can you imagine this major urban area with 25,000 acres devoted to conservation?  These natural resource assets are critically important to: changing the perception of our region from that of the "rust belt" to one of a "green" urban area with exceptional outdoor recreational opportunities; enhancing "quality of life"; providing ecosystem services and benefits that ensure community competitive advantage; and attracting and retaining the next generation of employees for businesses.

Our refuge is now a major source of community pride.  If you haven't experienced your international wildlife refuge, I encourage you to go birding at one of the sites along our Byways to Flyways Bird Driving Tour, come to one of the open houses at Humbug Marsh or the Gibraltar Bay Unit, go kayaking on our Detroit River Heritage Water Trail, go fishing for a trophy walleye, go hunting in one of the most historic waterfowl hunting areas in the Great Lakes, bicycle along our regional greenway trail system, take part in one of the refuge stewardship activities, and much more.  If you are looking for a close-to-home, exceptional, outdoor recreational experience, you will not be disappointed!

Humbug Marsh - Michigan's only "Wetland of International Importance" designated under the Ramsar Convention (photo courtesy of Visual Image Productions)

Post 3: Burning Rivers many rivers in the Great Lakes basin ecosystem have literally caught on fire and burned? Would you be surprised to know that there have been four burning rivers? You may have heard of the burning of the infamous Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, Ohio.  However, we also have one in our backyard – the Rouge River. The other two are the Buffalo River in New York and the Chicago River in Illinois.  

These four rivers caught on fire because of gross oil pollution caused by society's indiscriminate use and abuse of these aquatic ecosystems. Today, however, each of these rivers is experiencing dramatic environmental improvement and some surprising ecological revival.  

The revival stories of these burning rivers are fascinating.  In the case of the Rouge River, concerned citizens in Dearborn and Melvindale began to speak out in 1983 about the smell of rotten eggs emanating from the Rouge River. Nearly 1,000 signatures were gathered in petitions in 1984, protesting the raw sewage being discharged to the river that was causing the odor problems, and then delivered to state and federal officials. Then in 1985 a 23-year old man fell into the Rouge River, swallowed water, and died of leptospirosis or rat fever. Although health department officials stated publicly that this man's death could not be traced to water pollution in the Rouge River, most people knew that the probable cause was raw sewage discharge. Governments had no choice but to respond with a comprehensive approach to controlling and managing water pollution. 

In 1985, the Rouge River Basin Committee was established, involving all 48 watershed communities in solving this public health problem. In 1986, Friends of the Rouge was established and the first Rouge Rescue held.The institutional framework for watershed cleanup and prevention evolved from the Rouge River Basin Committee, to the Rouge River Remedial Action Plan Advisory Council, to the Rouge River National Wet Weather Demonstration Project, and, most recently, to the Alliance of Rouge Communities. Today, the Rouge River is a model of watershed management by virtue of having the first watershed-based storm water permit in the nation.  

This year marks the 25th anniversary of Friends of the Rouge and I can think of no better to celebrate the accomplishments then to look back and see how far we have come and remind people of what remains to be done to care for this river as our home.  

To help teach the lessons of the past and to help convince people of the urgent need to address the remaining challenges, I have written a new book titled Burning Rivers: Revival of Four Urban-Industrial Rivers that Caught on Fire. Burning Rivers tells these unique environmental histories, translates the science, provides practical lessons learned in river restoration, and will inspire people to be good stewards of rivers. This story of burning rivers/river revival also gives hope. If these four river systems can be revived and made into community assets, there is hope for all rivers and all people and organizations working to restore their river ecosystems.

Everyone interested in the environment, quality of life, conservation, and sustainability will learn something from this book. If interested in the story of burning rivers, books are available from Michigan Sea Grant, Amazon, Multi-Science, and the Aquatic Ecosystem Health & Management Society (AEHMS).

Book proceeds go to the Aquatic Ecosystem Health and Management Society.

Burning Rivers cover image courtesy of John Hartig

Post 2: Creating a New Waterfront Porch for Wildlife and People

Today, progressive communities are promoting locating both businesses and homes in walkable neighborhoods with front porches on houses that encourage talking with neighbors, keeping in touch with what goes on in the neighborhood, and looking out for one another.

Proponents argue that front porches are a key factor in achieving a sustainable community.  Just as house porches can help promote sustainability in neighborhoods, waterfront porches can help promote sustainability of rivers in urban areas.

Historically, houses and businesses in most Great Lakes cities were built facing away from their rivers. Detroit was no exception. In fact, much of the Detroit River shoreline was developed as the back door of commerce and industry

As commerce and industry expanded in the Detroit
metropolitan area, 31 out of 32 miles of U.S. mainland along the Detroit River shoreline were hardened with concrete or steel (hard shoreline engineering), providing no habitat for fish or wildlife. This shoreline hardening contributed to a 97% loss of coastal wetland habitats along the Detroit River. 

Today, there is growing interest in reclaiming urban waterfronts with new front porches. Urban planners and developers are using ecological principles and practices to reduce erosion and achieve stability and safety of shorelines, while enhancing habitat, improving aesthetics, enhancing urban quality of life, increasing waterfront property values, and even saving money when compared to installing concrete breakwalls or steel sheet piling. Ecologists refer to this as soft shoreline engineering. 

From an ecological perspective, soft shoreline engineering provides much needed habitat and can aid in flood and erosion control. Soft shoreline engineering is particularly important in channelized rivers like the Detroit River because of the amount of shoreline hardened with concrete breakwalls and steel sheet piling. Soft engineered shorelines provide spawning and nursery habitat for many fishes and are critically important to larval fish as they provide shelter, resting areas, food, and a chance to grow a little bigger and stronger on a larval fish's trip downstream to Lake Erie.  

Not only is soft shoreline engineering important for enhancing aquatic habitat and providing other ecological benefits, it is important from a social perspective because it helps reconnect people with the natural world. Soft shoreline engineering is increasingly becoming a vital element in making places special or unique and in fostering a sense of belonging in urban areas like Detroit. Indeed, waterfronts are magical places where the water meets the land and people can reconnect with their watershed. Experience has shown that reconnecting people to the river by creating waterfront vistas, reintroducing watershed residents to river history, geography, and ecology, establishing unique conservation places linked by greenway trails and blueways (i.e., canoe and kayak trails), promoting ecotourism, and championing green waterfront developments also help build a political base for a sustainable community.

Finally, we cannot lose sight of the economic benefits. Environment Canada has performed economic studies of greenways, natural areas, and parks on the Canadian side of the Detroit River in Windsor, Ontario. These studies show that the closer houses are to greenways, natural areas, parks, and gathering places for wildlife and people, the higher the property values. 

These green spaces and vistas also bring benefits through additional recreational spending and increased commercial activity. The economic importance of this was highlighted in a 2006 Outdoor Industry Foundation economic study that found that ou
tdoor recreation contributes $730 billion annually to the U.S. economy and supports nearly 6.5 million jobs across the United States.

Much like the effort to recreate front porches on houses in cities to encourage a sense of community, soft engineered shorelines along waterfronts in urban areas can help recreate gathering places for both wildlife and people.  

Note: In the past 10 years, 38 soft shoreline engineering projects have been implemented in the Detroit River watershed.
Look here for more information on these projects.

Wayne County’s Elizabeth Park shoreline before restoration (courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)
Wayne County’s Elizabeth Park shoreline after restoration (courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)
DTE Energy’s River Rouge Power Plant shoreline before restoration (courtesy of Nativescape)
DTE Energy’s River Rouge Power Plant shoreline after restoration (courtesy of Nativescape)
Milliken State Park storm water treatment system designed by JJR along the Detroit RiverWalk (courtesy of JJR)
Kayaking along the soft engineered shoreline of Elizabeth Park in Trenton (courtesy of Janis Lane)


Post 1: What Makes Detroit Wild?


What major urban area:
  • Is located at the intersection of the Atlantic and Mississippi Flyways and has 300,000 diving ducks stop each year?
  • Is identified in the North American Waterfowl Management Plan for its unique aquatic habitats?
  • Has been hosting an annual waterfowl festival for the last 64 years that attracts up to 10,000 people to pursue their passion of hunting and wildlife art?
  • Has been declared part of a Regional Shorebird Reserve by the Western Hemispheric Shorebird Reserve Network?
  • Has one of the top 20 Biodiversity Investment Areas in the Great Lakes Basin Ecosystem?
  • Is considered one of the best spots to watch hawks in North America?
  • Has 27 exceptional birding sites within a one hour drive?
  • Boasts North America's only International Wildlife Refuge and only International Heritage River System right in their back yard?
  • Has 10 million walleye migrate through their river corridor each spring?
  • Boasts one of the single most remarkable ecological recovery stories in North America, as evidenced by the return of lake whitefish, lake sturgeon, walleye, bald eagles, peregrine falcons, and osprey?
  • Hosts international fishing tournaments offering $1.5 million in prize money and holds the national record for a walleye caught in a Professional Walleye Trail Tournament?
  • Has a hunting, fishing, and birding economy worth tens of millions of dollars annually?
  • Holds over 1,000 sail boats races and numerous rowing regattas each year, and is rapidly gaining a regional reputation for kayaking?
  • Has one of the highest densities of registered boats in the nation?
  • Has over a 100-year history of hydroplane racing?
  • Has hundreds of miles of greenway trails for bicycling, jogging, and walking, and was the first in the country to establish a $25 million greenway fund that has leveraged another $90 million from governments and other sources?

By now you should have guessed it.  It is the Detroit metropolitan area and a secret to most that needs to be discovered.  Although cars, sports, music, and even the “"rust belt" are a major part of our national image, we need to discover our world-class water, wildlife, heritage, and recreational opportunities right in our backyard.  

An important part of our story is that the Detroit metropolitan area is rapidly gaining a national reputation for public-private partnerships for cooperative conservation.  Good examples of public-private partnerships for conservation include: DTE Energy's work with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on habitat restoration for the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge; General Motors Corporation's work with the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy on the Detroit RiverWalk; BASF Corporation's work with U.S. and Canadian agencies to build a sturgeon spawning reef off Fighting Island; U.S. Steel's work with federal and state governments on shoreline restoration; and Automotive Components Holdings' and Ford Motor Company's donation of Ford Marsh to the refuge.  Indeed, there are additional examples and new projects in the pipeline.  

These cooperative conservation efforts are recreating gathering places for people and wildlife in the Detroit River watershed.  Further, these unique conservation places are now a key factor in providing the quality of life so important in achieving competitive advantage for communities and businesses in the 21st Century.  Equally important is that cooperative conservation is providing an exceptional outdoor experience to nearly six million people in our Detroit River watershed that is helping develop the next generation of conservationists and sustainability entrepreneurs.  There are indeed many natural resources waiting to be discovered and enjoyed in the Detroit metropolitan area.  If you haven't discovered our wild side, you should.  And you need to help tell this story!

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