Great Lakes Director, The Nature Conservancy

As Great Lakes Director of The Nature Conservancy, John Andersen leads a team of scientists, policy, and planning professionals who protect freshwater biodiversity in North America’s Great Lakes ecosystem from systemic threats.  Mr. Andersen was an advisor to water management policy deliberations that resulted in the Great Lakes – St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Agreement and Compact, and continues to participate in the implementation of these agreements. He was an advisor on habitat protection to a regional collaboration convened by Presidential Executive Order, and is a Steering Committee member of the Army Corps’ Great Lakes Wetlands Habitat Initiative.  He is responsible for The Conservancy’s newly established joint initiative with the University of Notre Dame on aquatic invasive species and serves on the Great Lakes Aquatic Nuisance Species Panel. Mr. Andersen received his B.A. in economics from Brown University and his M.B.A. from Harvard University. Prior to joining The Conservancy, Mr. Andersen’s business career included providing financial and real estate services to corporations, governments, and institutions throughout the U.S. He helped develop a global real estate services firm, where he was President of its U.S. land business, and also led the company’s strategic move into China.

Your educational background was in economics and business, and your career began in business. How did you make the shift to conservation?

My career in business took me to LaSalle Partners (now Jones Lang LaSalle), a corporate real estate services firm, where I managed their national land services business. In doing that, I saw first hand how people used the land for development. I was very involved in what the industry called the “smart growth” trend, promoting sustainable use of land.

My passion since childhood has been enjoying our natural resources. I grew up in a town called Lake Bluff, it’s north of Chicago right on Lake Michigan, playing in the ravines and beaches. In the summers I traveled to see my grandparents in northern Wisconsin in the Chequamegon forest, which is a watershed that feeds into Lake Superior. As a child, I got a chance to enjoy the Great Lakes environs first hand.

My business took me all over the country and overseas, but I always had that appreciation for our outdoor environment. So I tried to bring that ethic into my business at LaSalle partners with some success. I also joined the Nature Conservancy’s Illinois chapter as a volunteer trustee and spent a few years here seeing what the staff was doing to protect these wonderful resources.  I decided I wanted to do this first hand. So after 23 years in business, I shifted full-time into the business of conservation four years ago. I am a businessman who works with a number of scientists trying to bring sound science to advance the protection of our Great Lakes freshwater ecosystem.

How do you think your background in economics and business has helped your office at The Nature Conservancy?

The Conservancy collaborates with all sectors of society. We work very closely with government entities, but also businesses and citizen groups. I had to do the same in my business environment. I understand the world of commerce and the needs of businesses to deliver services to their clients. I put together lots of partnerships in my old job, and I’ve done the same since coming here. For example, I helped to arrange a partnership with Notre Dame to address one of the dominant threats to freshwater systems – aquatic invasive species.

I also built businesses at LaSalle, helping us grow into an international leader, so I’m comfortable working in multiple cultures. In fact, the director of our new aquatic invasive species program is from New Zealand. We are bringing in world-class talent to help us address that threat here. The business of conservation means bringing the right resources and talent and deploying them in an effective way to progress towards your mission. The mission here is protecting biodiversity and my mission in my old world was serving clients and growing a real estate services firm. But there are parallels in establishing goals, setting strategies and building the capacity to meet those goals.

How about the fulfillment/happiness factor? Are you glad you made this shift?

Oh absolutely. How many people can pursue their passion as their main job? Not many. I have always enjoyed my career, but have never found it as meaningful as I do now. People love to do two things: make meaningful contributions and learn new skills so they grow and develop. If you can accomplish both, you’re pretty happy.

How do you enjoy the Great Lakes personally?

I live in Wilmette [Illinois]. Every morning, I run along a mile stretch of sand as the sun rises. In warmer weather, I finish my run with a swim in the lake. During migration, this is wonderful. I see herons and owls. In fact, I saw a migrating white pelican the other day. It’s a beautiful way to wake up in the morning.

Through my work, I get to travel and witness the places we’re trying to protect – from the rivers to the islands. Last year, I gave a talk in the Apostles, where my grandmother once taught in a little one-room schoolhouse on Madeline Island in the early 1900s. I was able to speak to conservation-minded folks there last year. I also had a chance to kayak there with my Dad and brother as the bald eagles soared overhead.

If you had to recommend one place within the Great Lakes region that people visit to see a good ecological health and rich biodiversity, what would you recommend?

That’s a tough question, because there are so many wonderful places. As you move north in the Great Lakes, you see some wonders you’d never expect here in the middle of North America. The Apostles is one that I love because of its stunning scenery, with cliffs, and caves you can kayak into right on the water. In western Lake Erie you have Point Pelee, which is renowned for migrating birds that stop there to rest and refuel on their long journeys. We have all kinds of great places for birders and Point Pelee is a real gem.

People marvel at two areas: Georgian Bay, one of the largest collections of freshwater islands in the world, includes Manitoulin, the largest freshwater island in the world. And the north shore of Lake Superior. There you find lynx, moose, mountain lion, bear and even woodland caribou. It’s really wild country with megafauna. We’re working with our partner, the Nature Conservancy of Canada to protect that part of the Great Lakes. So those are some places to visit that have rich and dramatic systems hosting many interesting species.

24% of our readers rank invasive species as the number one threat to the health of the Great Lakes (followed closely by toxic contaminants and non-point source pollutants). What do you believe currently poses the greatest threat to the Great Lakes?

The Nature Conservancy just completed a series of three workshops where we brought together our scientists from all eight states that share the Great Lakes, plus Nature Conservancy of Canada and my Great Lakes program to address that very same question. We looked at the threats to what we call our “conservation targets” across the Great Lakes. We group our conservation targets into freshwater systems, like lakes and tributaries and islands, coastal systems and wetlands. We also identify many species groups, such as Great Lakes river spawning fishes, off-shore fishes, colonial nesting water birds, migratory birds, etc. These are our conservation targets that represent the biodiversity and unique range of life here in the Great Lakes.

We asked what are the major threats to those conservation targets? In looking at a chart of 26 threats, the top one is housing and urban development – land conversion. Land use continues to be a dominant threat in the Great Lakes – in the coastal areas especially.  As you know, this area has been settled for a long time. Not unlike other parts of the world, most people want to live near water. We have 10,900 miles of coastline. Increasingly, we have secondary home development in addition to our primary community development, so the location of those homes and the kind of development around them can have a major influence on our coastal systems and natural communities.

The next two highest ranking threats were invasive fishes and invasive invertebrates – the threat of the Asian carp and zebra mussel at Lake Michigan Biological Station. Invasive plants – both aquatic and terrestrial – were also among the top ten threats.

Your readership is right. Four of our top threats were in the categories of invasives. But the number one is land use. You’ll see this referenced in the Binational Conservation Blueprint for the Great Lakes.

As you mentioned, The Nature Conservancy and the University of Notre Dame recently joined forces to address aquatic invasive species in the Great Lakes. What is the status of this project? At this stage in the project, if you had to guess, what would you say is the most threatening species that currently exist in the GL and that is likely to enter the GL?

One of the invasive species that gets the most press is the zebra mussel, which is estimated to cost over a hundred million dollars a year in economic losses and management costs. It is suggested to be the cause of some real problems – not only threatening native mussel populations, but also contributing to the loss of diporeia, which is at the foundation of the food chain. Maps show a dramatic decline in the population of diporeia in Lake Michigan coincident with the arrival of the zebra mussel. Asian carp are also a major threat. Two species, the bighead cap and the silver carp are in the Upper Mississippi River system and threaten to enter the Great Lakes through the Chicago Sanitary and Shipping Canal. These two species of Asian carp have devastated some of the native fish in the Illinois River and elsewhere and could do the same in the Great Lakes.

Our work with David Lodge at the University of Notre Dame is intended to prevent the next zebra mussel from coming here. Seventy percent of introductions come via the ballast water of ships. Every eight months, it is estimated that a new population of an exotic species is established in the Great Lakes. The pace really picked up with the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway to shipping traffic.

One of our projects with Notre Dame is to predict what could be the next zebra mussel, by identifying in other freshwater systems around the world species that have characteristics that could, if established here, become aggressive and explosive in their population growth. We hope to identify those species and then map out the patterns of ships that travel through those ports and come in to the Great Lakes. We’re putting together testing capabilities to do genetic testing in the ballast water to see if you’re carrying one of these risky species on board.

The other project involves recreational boating, which tends to spread the exotic species once they’re here. We hope to understand the patterns and behavior of boaters traveling from one lake to another in the Great Lakes and encourage investments and interventions that slow down their spread. We hope to complete these projects within a couple of years.

Do you think most Americans and Canadians understand the importance of the GL in terms of ecology and quality of life?  What do you think is the most common misperception about the Great Lakes among the general public? What do you think is the best thing that can be done to change this perception?

I think people do understand the quality of life factor. People love the Great Lakes. People marvel at the expanse of the Great Lakes and the quality of life here. In my dad’s world, people went to the jobs. Today, the companies go to locations with high quality of life to attract the talent there. The Great Lakes have great cities and living environments like Chicago and Toronto.

In general, what Americans – myself included before I took this job – don’t fully appreciate is the ecology. Too few people have been educated in ecological sciences in our country.  I think we intuitively appreciate the interconnection between all of life – that humans are a part of the living system – but we don’t understand the workings of the system.

Further education is required. You find children in school today getting more of it than we did, and the general public is becoming better educated about it. I give credit to a number of the major newspapers. In the twin cities, Detroit, Milwaukee and Chicago, we find more and more articles on the front pages of our newspapers about the ecological health of the Great Lakes being threatened. So I think our media is doing a service to educate people as well.

As for the most common misperception about the Great Lakes…I don’t think people appreciate the land/water interface as well as they need to. What takes place on the land affects the quality of the water itself, whether it’s the river or the lake. There’s a scientist named Jerry Wilhelm, who took me for a walk along the Fox River once. We walked down the bluffs of a ravine leading to the river. The small tributaries that were flowing to the river were very quiet. You couldn’t see much water in them because it was flowing underground. The lush, native vegetation on the banks was very healthy. One could see that a lot of the rainfall was draining through that vegetation and its deep roots into the groundwater that was flowing through this very healthy tributary. This is in great contrast to areas that have had excessive development, causing water to run off the landscape into the rivers, and carrying soil and pollutants along the way. I remember Jerry telling me, “John, to heal a river or a lake, you need to heal the land that drains into it.” I see that more and more now. I don’t think people appreciate fully enough how they take care of their own landscape at their home or corporate campus and how that affects the lakes. It’s as simple as the fertilizer or pesticides you put on your lawn or whether you use natural landscaping in our community development. So stormwater management issues like that are a major influence on the quality of our aquatic systems and life. I don’t think that’s understood, but I think there is a trend toward people understanding it within the real estate industry and increasingly within communities.

If you could do one thing, what do you think is the best tactic for getting the general public to appreciate and understand the ecology of the Great Lakes?

What can one say? More education. More awareness. I give credit to organizations like the Shedd Aquarium in our area. They get 2.1 million visitors a year, and they’ve taken the Great Lakes on as a major topic. They use their venue and their voice through the media to advance Great Lakes conservation. When you cut through it all, we’re really talking about change of behavior. The way to conserve ecosystems and protect the life we all love is for us – individually and institutionally, to change our behavior so that it is more benign and healthy.

Sixty percent of our readers say they believe the Great Lakes are at a “tipping point,” where they face irreversible damage if something is not done. Those who disagree, however, say things like, “They’ve been in worse shape…this is not a critical threshold,” and “…it’s easy to underestimate the remarkable recuperative potential of such an enormous ecosystem.” What do you think? Are the Great Lakes at the tipping point?

Some of your readers say that these systems are large and resilient, and that their recuperative efforts are strong. I think this is true. Ecosystems are very resilient, and the more diverse a system, the more resilient they tend to be. Yet we have witnessed around the world large systems that suffer. Take, for example, the Aral Sea in Asia. That was a collapse of that great aquatic system due in part to over irrigation. There are other systems in the world that have suffered dramatically, and the human communities surrounding them have suffered as well. We in North America’s Great Lakes have gone through various stages. Some of the lake systems have been destabilized in different ways. In Lake Ontario, the Moses-Saunders Dam was built by New York Power in 1953. That dam created some wonderful power, but it took away the natural fluctuations in lake levels. They no longer varied as much as they historically had. People don’t always appreciate that when lake levels go up and down in their natural range, they bring with them sand that gets deposited and builds dune systems. Those dune systems create habitat including inter-dunal wetlands that support rich fisheries and homes for muskrats and other species. Over the last 50+ years, the stabilization of lake levels at Lake Ontario caused by dam operations has led to degradation in some of the coastal habitat. I bring that up because that has been a major stressor in the last 60 years on Lake Ontario.

You could look to pollution in Lake Erie as being a major stressor there historically. At one time, it was industrial pollution, but we are increasingly seeing pollution coming from the huge agricultural industry in the rivers that feed into Lake Erie. Some of the systems have recovered in the past, and I tend to be a very hopeful person. I’d like to see them recover again. The loss of the diporeia in Lake Michigan, probably the result of the zebra mussel… will that recover when the zebra mussel – hopefully – comes into check? There is growing concern that if you put multiple stresses on top of each other – invasive species, pollution, water flow pattern change, etc. – they could degrade the system to where it may not recover to a healthy state. There are a number of respected scientists who believe that and I think we should be concerned.

I read on The Nature Conservancy’s web site that the Great Lakes region is home to 46 species found nowhere else in the world and 279 globally rare plants, animals and natural communities. To bring this home, tell me about a few of these species and why they are so important.

I’ll mention a bird, a fish and a plant. The bird would be the Kirtland’s warbler. It’s the rarest songbird in North America, and it is a beautiful little bird. I had the joy of joining Dr. Dave Ewert, one of the principal investigators of the Kirtland’s warbler project, in the jack pine forest of the northern part of the lower peninsula of Michigan, where the warbler nests. It only nests in trees that are about six years old, so it needs smaller trees (5-10 feet) because it nests underneath the lower branches that hug the ground. Once trees grow beyond that height and the branches die off down there, the warbler cannot nest there. This used to occur regularly in this habitat because of fires. But as you know, we suppress fires these days to protect human habitat and investments. There is a managed situation taking place by a number of our partners to harvest timber out of these forests and then replant Jack pine forests and let them grow in a planned way so that the bird has its nesting ground. Work is also being done in its wintering ground in the Bahamas. Dr. Ewert flies down there to work with a team of people on protecting the habitat and educating Bahamian people about the Kirtland’s warbler. Birding is one of the top recreation activities in this area. As many as 100 million birds migrate through the Great Lakes and 85% of bird mortality in general is known to occur en route during migration.  So protecting these coastal stopover sites for these birds is important.

The Great Lakes contains one-fifth of all the fish species on North America. One of the endemic ones, only found here, is the bloater, which is in the whitefish family. The whitefish family is at the foundation of the Great Lakes native food web. It has been hit hard by overfishing and invasive species. People also know about our lake sturgeon, which comes from the pre-historic times. It is quite charismatic and huge. I was canoeing with my wife in a Wisconsin river just last year when we felt the water boiling beneath us. It was a sturgeon that was erupting beneath our boat. The sturgeon is more widespread, and found in other places in North America. The bloater is not.

There are so many beautiful plants in the Great Lakes. Two that I’d like to mention are the dwarf lake iris, which is endemic. It’s a perennial on our lake shores, and it is threatened by development. There is also the lakeside daisy, a federally threatened species. It’s a beautiful plant that is found both in our rocky, prairie grasslands and along the shores of the Great Lakes.

Did you actually see a Kirtland’s warbler?

Yes. We were counting banded birds. It was quite exciting. I’d walk with Dave [Ewert] and when he’d hear the call of a male bird, we’d use our binoculars to check out its bands, which would identify it individually. We’d mark it on our map and then compare this marking to those from previous seasons. This year the program was actually able to identify an individual when it left the Bahamas and came back to Michigan in the spring and determine that it took 29 days for this tiny little warbler to travel those miles.

What is the population of the Kirtland’s warbler?

In 2005, researchers documented 1415 singing males, compared to only 167 in 1987. This is in large part because of the work Dr. Ewert and friends are doing.

Obviously, conservation of biodiversity in the Great Lakes requires cooperation and coordination among U.S. and Canadian governments and organizations. The Binational Conservation Blueprint , a “blueprint for coordinated action” created by TNC and Nature Conservancy of Canada, looks like a step in the right direction. How did these two organizations come together to create the Blueprint?

The Nature Conservancy and Nature Conservancy of Canada are long-standing friends that have been working with each other for decades. NCC in Canada worked with us and many Canadian partners to complete the Canadian part of the Blueprint just this last year. The data for the U.S. side had been gathered and compiled several years ago, so with the completion of the Canadian side, we were able to put those efforts together to identify priority places for biodiversity and publish this first binational joint Blueprint for the Great Lakes. We work together constantly on a number of projects. Every six months, the directors from our eight states in the U.S., my Great Lakes program, and Nature Conservancy Canada get together as the Great Lakes Directors’ Board to coordinate the work of our programs. We are very well coordinated on both a project and strategic level. This Blueprint is an illustration of how, from a planning standpoint, we collaborated to identify needs across the entire system.

It seems like a no-brainer to say, “let’s put this data together.” Whose idea was this?

The Nature Conservancy works with partners to put together ecoregional plans all over North America and the world. They’re based on “ecoregions,” which are defined by geology and climate, based on Bailey’s protocol. Certain climactic situations and geologic conditions will lead to certain vegetation growth and that will lead to the evolution of various species. It’s in that construct that ecoregional planning is prepared. The Conservancy leads that all over the country with all kinds of partners.

As humans settled the land, we set up jurisdictions that were almost always separated by rivers and lakes. But what we’re learning from an ecological standpoint is that these aquatic systems are really unifying forces. They are shared systems that drain related lands and have ecological interdependencies. The scientific community has understood that for some time and has created ecoregional plans to recognize those interdependencies and bring people together to share work.

What do you see as the major challenges to putting the Blueprint to work?

Working across jurisdictions. This is a huge, shared watershed. I’ll mention the Great Lakes Charter Annex of the New Regional Water Management Plan. The governors signed an agreement to manage, from a regional perspective, the waters of the Great Lakes in order to protect the waters and natural resources of the Great Lakes when water is withdrawn to any large degree (100,000 gallons or more). So, for water withdrawals for drinking water, agricultural irrigation, or industry use there was a standard proposed that would require that no harm was done to the natural resources. That’s the first time that has taken place on a regional level at that scale. Here, it’s now being considered by each of the state legislatures to become the law of the land. There is an international agreement with Canada that is being implemented as well. Multi-jurisdictional governance and cooperation is required when you deal in a watershed that cuts across state and other boundaries. Our Blueprint talks about all of the threats to the Great Lakes and identifies 500 priority places, so coordination is a major issue.

If we had to drop a lot of the things we are doing, the last thing I would ever drop would be adhering to the scientific credibility of the Blueprint. We didn’t create it alone. We led the process with more than 200 participants, and it is continually being improved. The Nature Conservancy is just one of many organizations that have contributed, but the Blueprint is the foundation for protecting biodiversity in the Great Lakes. It is our guidance.

Many of the Great Lakes problems begin, as it says on The Nature Conservancy’s web site, “on land.” Tell me about the Northern Great Lakes Forest Project.

Over the last two years, two great land transactions took place – the largest in Michigan’s history and the largest in Wisconsin’s history for protecting Great Lakes habitat. The Northern Great Lakes forest project is one of those. What I find special about it is that it connects a lot of other protected places. It fills the gap in the upper peninsula and creates an expansive area of protected, forested aquatic habitat that is precious. Your readers may want to read more about it on our web site.

Our mission at Biohabitats is to “restore the earth and inspire ecological stewardship.” In your opinion, how do the Great Lakes compare with other systems like the Amazon, in terms of their affect on the overall health of the planet?

The Nature Conservancy has just committed to work with partners to protect 10% of all habitat types on earth by the year 2015. That’s forests, grasslands, arid lands, marine and, of course, fresh water on earth. Northern America’s Great Lakes ecosystem has been identified as one of the priorities of that global conservation goal. It’s recognized world-wide as a special resource. As you know, 95% of North America’s surface fresh water is found in our Great Lakes – 20% of the world’s. Our web site shows superlatives that would put it at the top of anybody’s chart for protection. There are many places in the world that are precious, but certainly among those that are freshwater related, this has got to be one of them.

For this issue of Leaf Litter, we have also interviewed representatives from the U.S. EPA’s GLNPO, the International Joint Commission and Bird Studies Canada. Has your office worked directly with any of these organizations? If so, how?

Karen Rodriguez of the GLNPO has been a friend and teacher to me. They have been a great partner for our program. They’ve been a big supporter – and user – of the Blueprint, in terms of bringing it into their Lake Area Management Plan. They are a financial supporter of ours in places like Lake Ontario, where we are doing some lake-wide planning.

The International Joint Commission is a very important binational commission. The Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement is a real guidepost for how we protect our shared resources and the IJC is responsible for that. A review of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement is underway and my staff is amongst other committee members evaluating it. The IJC is a very strong leader in guiding several sectors of our community, most importantly the U.S. EPA and Environment Canada.

Over the years, we have worked with Bird Studies Canada to identify Important Bird Areas as part of our Great Lakes ecoregional planning process for the Blueprint. They are an important contributor to protecting the wonderful diversity of bird life found here in the Great Lakes.

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