Tribes lead effort to restore aquatic ecosystems


New Michigan Public Television documentary debuts Oct. 2

From staff reports

The Crystal River near Glen Arbor in Leelanau County is one of the central features in a new documentary film to be screened on WCMU Public Television at Noon on Sunday, Oct. 2. Restoring Aquatic Ecosystems shines a light on Michigan’s first indigenous-led, multi-agency collaborative created to restore and protect the ecology of streams and rivers across the entire region.

Led by the Grand Traverse Band (GTB) of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, the Tribal Stream and Michigan Fruitbelt Collaborative includes more than a dozen nonprofit organizations and governmental agencies working together to remove blockages to the natural flow of water in Michigan’s streams and rivers—often called “the arteries of mother earth.”

Working in relative obscurity, this little-known Collaborative has already received more than $18 million in federal grants from the USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) and more than $30 million in local matching funds. The work completed so far has included the replacement of undersized culverts with timber bridges, the removal of old and failing dams, and the purchase of conservation easements to prevent urban development on farmland—particularly fruit farms.

In researching this documentary, filmmakers Joe VanderMeulen and Bronwyn Jones of Maple City asked why and how the people of Michigan could restore stream ecosystems after a century or more of damage caused by insensitive road construction and urban development. How could these choked waterways be revived? Can the Collaborative make any difference to the fish and wildlife that use stream corridors?

Restoring Aquatic Ecosystems was filmed in over a dozen locations across Northwest Lower Michigan in the rivers, along the streams, and with drones from the air. Viewers will see the detrimental impacts of undersized culverts and old dams on stream flow as well as improvements made by restoration projects completed in locations from in the Carp Lake River and Maple River in the north to the Boardman, Platte, Betsie, and Manistee Rivers to the south.

The film includes conversations with 15 different biologists, ecologists, engineers, and government leaders about the Collaborative’s approach and the challenges we still face to restore and preserve aquatic ecosystems for insects, fish, and wildlife.

Restoring Aquatic Ecosystems also deals with issues related to the hunting, fishing, and gathering rights retained by the tribes of Anishinaabe people under treaties signed with the U.S. Federal government in the 1800s. With help from GTB Tribal Councilor Tina Frankenberger, GTB Appellate Judge JoAnne Cook, and Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa archivist and historian Eric Hemenway, viewers will learn about the critical roles aquatic ecosystems play in supplying food, fiber, and medicines to indigenous people as well as the importance of these resources to the cultural identity of the Anishinaabe people.

The film’s producer and director is Joe VanderMeulen and the associate producers are Bronwyn Jones, Dan Bertalan, and Morgan Burke-Beyers. VanderMeulen and Jones of Maple City are also the creators of Nature Change, an online source for mini-documentaries on environmental and natural resource topics.

Nature Change worked with the nonprofit organization, Bellaire-based Crosshatch Center for Art and Ecology to provide administrative support and assist in raising the funds needed to create this documentary. A challenge grant from the Americana Foundation provided the first portion of funds needed to create this film. The remaining funds were provided by Jody Marquis, the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, Leelanau Conservancy, Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy, and the Conservation Resource Alliance.

Crystal River culvert replacement next year

The Crystal River near Glen Arbor in Leelanau County flows through three sets of undersized culverts along County Road 675 (Crystal View Road) on its way to Lake Michigan. Each set of culverts pinches the river making it difficult for fish and wildlife passage and posing risks to human paddlers as well. Late last year, the Leelanau County Road Commission announced plans to work with the Tribal Stream and Michigan Fruitbelt Collaborative—an unusual collection of organizations led by the Grand Traverse Band (GTB) of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians. The Collaborativewill guide and help fund work to replace the Crystal River culverts with bridges that properly span the stream to allow a natural flow, providing for the movement of fish and wildlife like turtles and otter. Set to begin in 2023, this multi-million-dollar bridge-building project will also make these stream crossings more durable and flood resistant.