White House Panel on Oceans Visits Great Lakes
October 29, 2009 - 11:41 AMA White House panel developing a strategy for managing oceans and their coastlines is including the Great Lakes in its plan, which will propose ways to protect the environment while preventing conflicts among users.
The Interagency Ocean Policy Task Force, which President Barack Obama established in June, convenes the last of six regional public meetings Thursday in Cleveland. It will be the only gathering devoted specifically to the Great Lakes.
"We understand that there are some challenges that the Great Lakes are facing that are very similar to challenges along the oceans," Nancy Sutley, chairwoman of the task force and the White House Council on Environmental Quality, said in a phone interview Wednesday. "There's increasing competition for resources, the environmental stress they are under."
The 24-member task force, comprised of officials from federal entities such as the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Coast Guard, issued an interim report in September.
It recommended establishing a National Ocean Council to coordinate the federal response to problems such as pollution, rising sea levels and ocean acidification. But it was unclear about how the lakes would fit into the plan, said Jeff Skelding, director of the Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition.
Government agencies and advocacy groups already have a wide-ranging blueprint for cleaning up the lakes, the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. A House-Senate conference committee approved $475 million Tuesday to launch the initiative, which would clean up toxic hot spots, battle invasive species and improve wildlife habitat, among other projects.
The ocean policy task force is "promising and needed," Skelding said. "But we need to make sure it doesn't take us away from the restoration strategy. The entire region has put our heart and soul into that strategy and it's working, so we don't need any distractions."
Sutley said the task force's work would complement the restoration, emphasizing the need for federal agencies to cooperate with state and local governments as the initiative is carried out.
The interim report calls for an "ecosystem-based approach," or making policies with an understanding of how they would affect all life in a given area, as opposed to piecemeal regulation. That philosophy is needed in the Great Lakes as much as the oceans, Sutley said.
"They're the largest group of freshwater lakes in the world, very important not only to the prosperity of communities surrounding them but to the U.S. economy as a whole," she said.
One idea the task force may bring to the region is "marine spatial planning," a process of determining which activities should be allowed in which parts of the oceans and the Great Lakes. The interim report recommends such an approach.
Marine spatial planning is somewhat like land-use planning, said Sandra Whitehouse, senior adviser to The Ocean Conservancy.
It will become increasingly necessary as people seek more space for marine activities ranging from energy production to fishing and recreation, she said, noting that Great Lakes wind farms are on the drawing board.
"The idea is to plan ahead ... for economic development that will be sustainable," Whitehouse said.
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