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Commentary: A Sustainability Lesson for the Great Lakes Region

The Great Lakes region is a special place, host to bountiful natural resources and rich in natural earth science artifacts that served over the centuries as center stage for human habitation and societal development. The region now sits at another significant crossroad as scientists, policy makers, and experts in all aspects of natural resource and economic development visualize a future for the region supported through what has become termed the “Blue Economy.”  A key concern in all of this is sustainability. How will we be able to build the new economy (defined in the broadest sense – thriving and diverse natural systems as well as social and economic ones) and maintain it over the long haul for the benefit of future generations?

My personal history provides what may be some insight into what is needed to ensure sustainability success. I am truly a Great Lakes guy; one of those who can proudly stand up and say that I have immersed myself in all five of the Great Lakes. My father saw to that. He was raised on the shores of Sandusky Bay, growing up and working with a Lake Erie commercial fisherman in the late 1920s. But when I completed studies in Pulp and Paper Technology at Western Michigan University, I was lured away to Northern Maine to work at one of the giants of the forest products industry, where nearly every process or technology I had studied in my college textbooks was being used, had been applied, or even had been developed. The timing was pivotal in this industry. Its leaders had become aware of the industry’s impacts on environment and had been working to find ways to address them since the 1940’s.

As a paper mill process chemist I was privileged to have been a part of a superb “team” that worked over my three decades up there to implement environmental programs and develop new ones. Like our Great Lakes region, this upper left hand corner of the State of Maine is a place of spectacular beauty and bountiful natural resources. Utilization of those resources began in the 1800’s – even earlier by remarkably rugged visitors seeking tall, clear, white pine for use in shipbuilding. Industrial development, dating to 1899 for my old company, ratcheted things up many notches and the ecosystem took a toll. But, in the mid-1900s, the need for asserted environmental stewardship was recognized, which triggered a decades-long stint of reversing trends and development of practices that have remediated and saved the area from being stripped of its beauty. It is today, still, a remarkable spectacle of natural beauty. But most unfortunately, I have come to the conclusion that my “team” failed.

Today, what the area is not is a successful example of industrial, business, or social sustainability. In its heyday, the area and the large company created there was a world leader in all respects. What drew me to the area was that fact that all of the textbook examples of how to produce the best paper in the world were in place, being made operational, or under development in this remote but uniquely beautiful location. Additionally, national political leaders came from this area. Wall Street business leaders, guided by world class academic and industrial process scientists and engineers, were all engaged in development and operation of the industrial machine that made this area so prosperous. It was indeed an exciting place – for a time!

My “team” was not made up of just the engineers, scientists, and managers of our company. All of those other folks that I speak of were also members of “the team.”  Company personnel had strong interactions with the policy developers, academic and economic development experts, organized labor leadership, the press, community leaders, etc., and made constant attempts at working together. But, what “the team” failed to do in the late 20th century was secure the social and economic future of the region. The mills we ran are idle now. Large portions of these facilities have been bulldozed and/or cut up for scrap. Sophisticated, world class equipment has been sold and shipped off to other parts of the world. Once thriving and bustling communities are striving to find the “magic” that will allow them to once again provide attractive wages and lifestyles.

Many oversights and misguided policy developments led to this outcome. The region’s team did not adequately respond to changing markets and world business conditions. They focused on short term business decisions rather than long term visions, and responded to immediate political issues rather than planning for longer term economic and social needs. All “team” members, not just the company people, had a role in this. Specific examples would fill a book that I wish I were smart enough to write. But, the outcome should serve as an example to guide current generations down a pathway that avoids such experiences. As is frequently stressed, there are three legs to the sustainability stool – environmental, social, and economic. All are important and all must be robustly supported – equally.

As we continue to move forward in the Great Lakes region to build the “new economy” from the “Blue Economy” we must remember that the “team” must include players from all sectors of society and must successfully work together to make sure each of the legs of the sustainability stool are ruggedly built and turn out to be exactly the same length.

Written by Dale K. Phenicie, CGLI Technical and Projects Director. Dale K. Phenicie is CGLI’s Technical and Project Director. Dale has worked with CGLI on various Great Lakes technical and policy issues for more than 20 years.