July 19, 2021 marked the 20th anniversary of the Detroit River being named a Canadian Heritage River. The river is truly a shared resource bringing the people of two nations together. The American side of the Detroit River was designated a Heritage River in 1998. With the Canadian side being designated a Canadian Heritage River in 2001, the Detroit River became the first river on the continent to receive both Canadian and American heritage river status.
To celebrate the Detroit River as a binational Heritage River, we interviewed Dr. John Hartig, a visiting scholar at the Great Lakes Institute of Environmental Research. In our interview, Dr. Hartig reflected on the importance of the Heritage River designation, his role in designating the American side of the Detroit River a Heritage River, and his experience as the International Wildlife Refuge Manager.
Can you describe what you did in your role as the River Navigator for the Greater Detroit American Heritage River Initiative?
Dr. Hartig: Most people would think that a River Navigator had a boat, but I did not have one. My job was to navigate bureaucracies and deliver projects that would improve quality of life and promote sustainable development. I was charged to form partnerships among communities, businesses, and nongovernmental organizations that would protect the environment, revitalize local economies, and celebrate history and culture.
What projects and initiatives were you able to implement on the river through being the River Navigator and what impact did these have on the river?
Dr. Hartig: There were five priorities of the Greater Detroit American Heritage River Initiative: soft shoreline engineering, linked riverfront greenways, Belle Isle, cleanup of a waterfront brownfield site, and Historic Fort Wayne. Over a 15-year period, 53 soft shoreline projects were implemented on both sides of the border. A good example of linked riverfront greenways is the 9-km Detroit RiverWalk that is now 80% complete. The RiverWalk attracts more than three million annual visitors and has spurred more than $1 billion of public and private investments on adjacent lands in the first ten years. In 2021, the Detroit RiverWalk was named the No. 1 riverwalk in the United States by USA Today. And Windsor’s and Detroit’s greenways will be connected in 2024 with a dedicated bicycle and pedestrian lane on the new Gordie Howe International Bridge. An industrial brownfield site in Trenton was cleaned up and habitats restored to become the Refuge Gateway of the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge that is now open to the public.
Why are the Canadian and American Heritage River designations important for the river?
Dr. Hartig: First, the Detroit River is a shared ecosystem between the United States and Canada. Both sides of the border need to work together to achieve common goals. These heritage river designations strengthened transboundary cooperation. In 2001, the Detroit River became the first and only international heritage river system in North America. Up until that point the predominant perception of the Detroit River was that it was an Area of Concern and polluted river in the Rust Belt. The heritage river designations helped change the perception of the Detroit River from that of a polluted river in the Rust Belt to one that strengthened our economy and improved quality of life. These heritage river designations helped people begin to look at life after delisting as and Area of Concern and envision a more positive future as the only international heritage river system and only international wildlife refuge in North America.
The Detroit River is home to the only International Wildlife Refuge in North America. You were the Refuge Manager for 14 years. What should people know about the Refuge?
Dr. Hartig: The Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge provides a unique opportunity to bring conservation to cities, make nature part of everyday urban life, and strengthen transboundary conservation efforts. In 2012, the Western Lake Erie Watersheds Priority Natural Area (PNA) was established in Canada to coordinate efforts among different levels of government and the nongovernmental and private sectors, and to foster transboundary conservation in the spirit of the international wildlife refuge. However, interest in the PNA has waned. This is a potential missed opportunity. Options to improve transboundary conservation include:
- Re-energize the PNA under Essex Region Conservation Authority and ensure participation of all key stakeholders, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
- Designate either Parks Canada, Bird Studies Canada, or Environment and Climate Change Canada to be the lead agency for working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on the international wildlife refuge. These Canadian and U.S. federal agencies could then meet at least once per year with the other conservation partners to review progress, set priorities, and agree to cooperative conservation actions/initiatives. One advantage of this option would be that the lead responsibilities would fall to Canadian and U.S. federal agencies.
- Through existing or new legislation, establish a National Wildlife Area in Canada to work closely with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on the international wildlife refuge. As part of this option, either Parks Canada, Bird Studies Canada, or Environment and Climate Change Canada should be designated as the lead federal agency in working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. These two Canadian and U.S. federal agencies could then meet with the other conservation partners at least once per year to review progress, set priorities, and agree to cooperative conservation actions/initiatives. This option would also have the advantage of assigning the lead responsibility to Canadian and U.S. federal agencies and would charge them with working with other conservation partners.
- Work with local interests to establish Ojibway Urban National Park in Canada with an emphasis on bringing conservation to cities. This would be a comparable mission of that of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for the refuge. The two federal parties (i.e., Parks Canada and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) could then meet at least once per year to review progress, set priorities, and agree to cooperative conservation actions/initiatives. This too would have the advantage of assigning the lead responsibility to Canadian and U.S. federal agencies and would charge them with working with other conservation partners.
Can you tell us about some of the work you’re currently doing as a Visiting Scholar at the Great Lakes Institute for Environmental Research (GLIER) at the University of Windsor?
Dr. Hartig: I am just completing a four-year project that has identified what has been achieved and learned from more than 35 years of restoring Great Lakes Areas of Concern. I am also excited to be part of the team organizing the 2021 State of the Strait Conference at University of Michigan-Dearborn on Dec. 2, 2021. The focus of the conference will be contaminated sediment remediation. I am also working with another team of scientists on organizing a conference on the ecosystem approach in the 21st century to be held at the University of Windsor in 2022 in celebration of 50th anniversary of the Canada-U.S. Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement.
It is such a privilege and pleasure to be a Visiting Scholar at the Great Lakes Institute for Environmental Research and to foster transboundary partnerships for ecosystem-based management of our Great Lakes. And thank you, partners of Detroit River Canadian Cleanup, for all you do to care for the place we call home.