Friends of the St. Clair River works to protect natural resources and inspire environmental pride

Protecting the environment is a priority. A well functioning ecosystem is essential for the survival of a diverse species of plants and animals, as well as for humans. Friends of the St. Clair River, founded in 2007, is the region's largest environmental nonprofit.

As board president, I am the last remaining founder of our organization. Our goal is to care for our natural resources by taking on invasive species, restoring high priority shorelines and waterways, helping to diversify recreational opportunities, and developing land care connections to protect the long term health of our land and water resources. We also provide environmental training and education to the community via a variety of programs and events.

We were formed out of the need to bring an environmental nonprofit to St. Clair County because prior to us there wasn't one. We wanted to establish a respected, and trusted organization that would have the upper hand to engage the community in natural resource stewardship and education. We also wanted to generate enthusiasm, pride, and advocacy for our outdoor recreational areas as well as the Great Lakes in general. When there is community pride and enthusiasm for your natural resources, you have greater stewardship of those resources.

Being the largest environmental nonprofit in the region requires a lot of manpower and dedication. Thankfully, we have excellent volunteers, without whom we couldn't accomplish what we have over the past 14 years. Though the pandemic and lockdown brought challenges to our program, we were fortunate to not be as affected as many other businesses and organizations due to the majority of our work being done outdoors.

As quarantines lifted, we were able to hit the ground running with our volunteers who were chomping at the bit to get back out in the field. We made space in our work to help people feel more comfortable and provided regulated safety precautions and PPE. We also made use of the virtual platforms to maintain our visibility and engagement throughout the pandemic. By doing so, we've actually seen our audience and outreach grow, and we've integrated that as a permanent part of our program.

We've learned so much during this time and formed many new partnerships through which we've been able to expand our fee for service work. Fee for service is a three-tier model we provide our partners consisting of habitat management and stewardship, environmental education and outreach, and coordination of all volunteer labor and training, whether they be corporate entities, industrial, or municipalities. Services may include helping to get rid of invasive species, restoring native plants to their landscape, etc.

We are currently working with the St. Clair Rotary Club and the city of St. Clair with the Pine River Restoration Project, returning a landscape to its native roots to provide habitat for fish and wildlife. It’s partnerships like these that've allowed us to fill funding gaps that occurred during the pandemic. Being that we share the St. Clair River with Canada, we also have a strong and really important international partner as well. There is actually a Friends of the St. Clair River group in Canada. The river looks much different than it did 100 years ago due to our combined efforts of cleaning up pollution. 

Our organization also utilizes grants, contracts, fee for service, sponsorships and donations to fund our efforts here. We've been able to keep our staff employed, maintain our grants and secure sponsorships for our large fundraising event the Sturgeon Festival, so we were very fortunate in that regard. Looking ahead, we are continuing to monitor our revenue streams and financial health to keep an eye on what trends will come as a result of COVID-19 regulations. 

Our presence in the area schools has been negatively affected by the pandemic. We do a lot of environmental education programs with the local school district. Although we weren't able to go into classrooms during COVID-19, we did adapt some programs virtually Our Sturgeon Science School program is one of our most successful and fun for the students. Using lake sturgeon to tell the story of the restoration of the Great Lakes and the St. Clair river, we put environmental education into action by combining classroom lessons with a field trip to help students learn how to care for the community where they live.

We are looking forward to kicking off our next three-year strategic plan coming this January. Although on paper we have a three year plan, we have embraced a mentality where we think like a sturgeon. A sturgeon can live up to 100 years and that's our mentality, thinking about what we have to do to celebrate our 50th anniversary, always looking ahead at the bigger picture, but realizing that it's the small steps that get you there. Through the efforts of our volunteers, scientists, and staff, Friends of the St. Clair River will continue to protect, restore, and educate about our natural resources.

Sheri Faust serves as board president for Friends of the St. Clair River, a nonprofit caring for the 40-mile long St. Clair River and five smaller subwatersheds draining into Lake Huron, the St. Clair River, and Lake St. Clair. This entry is part of our Nonprofit Journal Project, an initiative inviting nonprofit leaders across Metro Detroit to contribute their thoughts via journal entries on how COVID-19, a heightened awareness of racial injustice and inequality, issues of climate change and more are affecting their work--and how they are responding. This series is made possible with the generous support of our partners, the Michigan Nonprofit Association and Co.act Detroit.