Director, Great Lakes Regional Office, International Joint Commission, Director, Great Lakes Islands Project

Karen E. Vigmostad is the director of the International Joint Commission’s Great Lakes Regional Office in Windsor, Ontario. The Commission is an independent international governmental organization established by the 1909 Boundary Waters Treaty between Canada and the United States. The purpose of the Commission is to help prevent and resolve disputes relating to the use and quality of boundary waters, and to advise Canada and the United States on related questions. The Great Lakes Regional Office was established in 1972 by the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement to help the two federal governments implement and assess progress under the Agreement.

Dr. Vigmostad came to this position with 20 years of Great Lakes policy experience, most recently with the Northeast-Midwest Institute in Washington, D.C. Dr. Vigmostad specializes in Great Lakes ecosystem restoration, water management, and coastal policy, and she leads a binational collaborative for the conservation of Great Lakes islands. She holds a doctorate from Michigan State University and a Master of Science from the University of Michigan in environmental policy, and her publications include the State of the Great Lakes Islands and Large-scale Ecosystem Restoration: Lessons for Existing and Emerging Initiatives.

Are you originally from the Great Lakes region?

Yes. I was born and raised in the city of Detroit. My father was born in Norway, near the ocean. He loved water and boats. We always had a very small motorboat that we would take out on Lake St. Clair on the weekends. So all of our family activities revolved around Lake St. Clair.

Aside from your work, tell me about your relationship with the Great Lakes. How do you personally enjoy them?

My work is very deeply personal. I was christened beside a wilderness lake in Maine by my grandfather, a congregational minister, when I was a year old. Now, I spend as much time as possible walking the beaches of Lake Michigan and other lakes. I try to do most of my travel and spend most of my down time near the Great Lakes. I own a little house three blocks from Lake St. Clair, and I walk to the Lake nearly every day. My office is on the eighth floor, overlooking the Detroit River and several islands, so I have a wonderful view. I’ve done Great Lakes work for over 20 years and this is the first time my office has ever been close to the water!

Can you tell me a little about the origin and mission of the International Joint Commission and describe your role there?

The International Joint Commission was established by the 1909 Boundary Waters Treaty between Canada and the United States. The reason we were established was to prevent and resolve disputes between our two countries over our shared waters along the entire border. We have jurisdiction from the Atlantic to the Pacific, including the Alaska/Yukon border. Because the Great Lakes are such a big, important part of the boundary waters, there was a separate agreement, the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, signed by President Nixon and Premier Trudeau in 1972. The legal authorities for that go back to part of the Boundary Waters Treaty in which the two countries pledged that the boundary waters shall not be polluted on either side to the injury of health or property on the other. My office was set up in 1972 to assist the two governments and assess progress in implementing the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, which has been updated twice since then – in 1978 and 1987.

In the Great Lakes office, we have a staff of 19. We work primarily through several advisory boards of experts and government officials that advise us on issues and on implementing the Agreement. We have a Water Quality Board, made up of federal, state and provincial officials who are responsible for the programs that “clean up” the Great Lakes. We have a Science Advisory Board that advises us on scientific issues. They are external scientists from Canada and the U.S. who have expertise in various Great Lakes subjects.  We also have a Council of Great Lakes Research Managers and International Air Quality Advisory Board. Our boards and council work jointly on several major Commission priorities.

Has the Commission’s mission or focus changed beyond solving disputes in more recent years?

This is still primarily our focus. Even though we are a creature of the two federal governments, they gave us independent authority. Our Commissioners reach decisions by consensus, or by unity. They do not report to the President or Prime Minister. They are expected to work independently and look at interests of both nations, not just the nation responsible for appointing them. We have kept that mission. On the U.S. side, the Commissioners not only take the normal oath federal employees take to uphold the Constitution, they also take an oath to uphold the Treaty.

Do you think most Americans and Canadians understand the importance of the Great Lakes in terms of ecology and quality of life? 

That is hard for me to assess, because most of the public I deal with do. I do know some people outside my professional life who take the Great Lakes for granted and don’t understand their magnificence globally and their ecological and economic importance. I know someone who lived in Grand Rapids, Michigan, her whole life yet had never been to Lake Michigan. Grand Rapids is about an hour away from Lake Michigan. It’s hard to understand because these wonderful lakes are a part of my identity as a human being.

What do you think is the most common misperception about the Great Lakes among the general public?

What I’d like people to know is that these lakes are not a renewable resource. What we put in them – oil, sewage, etc. – cannot just be flushed away. If a drop of water, theoretically, goes in the headwaters of Lake Superior and you imagine it someday getting down to the end of the St. Lawrence River, that would take over 200 years. So, in effect, the lakes are closed systems. They are so large it is hard to sense they are closed. When we go to the ocean, we feel physically connected to the life there because we can see it — seashells, birds, porpoises, etc… but here, our fish are deeper and further away. We don’t usually see them near the shoreline. We don’t have porpoises. We just don’t realize that the Lakes are living. They are alive, and they are affected by everything we do. Without healthy Lakes, we cannot have healthy human life. I think we take them for granted.

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

I can tell you where I like to go. I own some property and plan to retire near Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore in northwest Michigan. You will see the most unique features in the entire world, in terms of a freshwater ecosystem. You will see towering dunes and beach-maple forests. There are amazing hiking trails and even a driving trail where you can stop and see the succession of the different types of freshwater dunes.

If you want more wilderness, I’d recommend anything along the north shore of Lake Superior. This summer I did an awesome drive along the Canadian side from Sault Ste. Marie to Thunder Bay, Ontario. It is one of the most beautiful drives on our continent. It is magnificent. A real wilderness experience would be Isle Royale, which is one of the most precious places on Earth. It’s an adventure to get there, but it’s worth it.

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?

I think your readers got it, actually. The problem with invasive species is that you cannot fix it. With toxics, the levels can go down. Sometimes you can remove sediment and get them out of the aquatic system. But when you have a change in the biological system, through zebra mussels or other aquatic organisms, you cannot get rid of them. So you have a permanent change. The best you can do is to be very aggressive, in terms of preventing their introduction into the Great Lakes. This is a precious freshwater system and there are signs of extreme biological stress showing up in the fisheries of our Great Lakes. Your readers have it right. Invasives affect the entire ecological structure of the Great Lakes.

The IJC assists the U.S. and Canada in implementing the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. I understand that the Agreement has not been amended since 1987. In August of this year, the IJC issued a special report to the Canadian and US governments calling for a “stronger, more contemporary Agreement,” and the development of a Binational Action Plan. Do you think the Agreement has, until now, been a key document in pushing policy?

Absolutely. There’s no doubt about that. The Agreement sets a high bar for what the two nations hope to accomplish in terms of the way we treat and restore the Great Lakes. It has driven programs. You’ll find similar language in some U.S. and Canadian legislation. For example, the Canadians have a formal agreement between the province of Ontario and the Canadian federal government called the Canada- Ontario Agreement, which was originally designed to help implement the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement.

In reading the report, I see that action and accountability seem to be persistent themes. Can you tell me a little bit more about the recommendations in the report?

We may want to step back a little and talk about how we developed this report. We held 15 public consultations between October and December of 2005. My first day on this job was our first public consultation in Montreal. We received comments from over 4,000 people within that three-month period. We had all kinds of venues for them to reach us: meetings, letters, email, telephone calls and web dialogues. We took that advice and, in the people’s own words, crafted and published a synthesis of their comments. Our advisory board had done their own consultations among themselves and came up with advice on issues that were important to the renewal of the Agreement. Then, our staff and Commissioners held many discussions and meetings and reviewed those reports and recommendations to come up with our advice. So, even though it is a Commission document, it has a very firm foundation in a lot of people who are experts and care deeply about the Great Lakes – not just our own organization.

Our hope was that we would bring the Agreement into the 21st Century to increase relevancy and accountability, yet make it action oriented, adaptable and strong. We ended up recommending a new agreement. There is concern by some people that it’s a little unsafe to start thinking about starting with a new agreement. What if we can’t get it? What if it weakens the Agreement? But we strongly feel that the governments’ official and certainly the public support is there to create a new document that would be a shorter statement of principles and commitments. Then, linked to that would be a Binational Action Plan, which could be updated more easily and could provide details on who is going to do what by when. So you would increase accountability and you would be able to involve more layers of government than just the two governments. You’d be able to get commitments by the eight Great Lakes states and the province of Ontario and hopefully some contributions from the province of Quebec, tribes, First Nations, and municipal governments. We took a bold step to propose this new approach.

What has the reaction been to them so far?

Very positive. I think people were surprised, and of course everybody doesn’t agree with everything, but there is pretty strong support. We’ll have to see. In the end, the decision will have to be made by the highest level of government in Canada and the U.S.

There’s something I want to point out. This is an executive agreement between two governments. Currently, there are hundreds and hundreds of people involved in reviewing and evaluating that Agreement. They crafted a very large report that is being reviewed right now. It may be the first time in the history of the world when so many citizens have been involved in actually commenting on and helping craft a new or revised executive agreement between two soverign nations. I think we should really tip our hats off to our two governments, specifically Environment Canada and the U.S. EPA’s Great Lakes National Program Office, who opened the doors to get this very thoughtful, detailed, in-depth consultation with stakeholders from both countries over the future of our Great Lakes.

The governments established ten Review Working Groups looking at very specific aspects of the Agreement. For example, one is called Group A, and they are looking at the purpose and scope of the Agreement. There is also one called the Special Issues Working Group. They looked at things that aren’t in the current Agreement – like biological diversity and watershed management – and commented on that and came up with recommendations. We have a reference web site with a lot of resources, including the Agreement, the Treaty, and all of the advice we received leading up to the review – even our Public Synthesis report that includes individual letters from the public.

Does Canada have anything like the Legacy Act?

They do not have anything like the Legacy Act. We are hoping that at some point they might establish a separate fund, but they don’t have anything like it right now.

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?

They may be reaching a tipping point. I think with any large biological system such as the Great Lakes, we can’t be certain. There are definitely signs of new problems, so I do not agree that they’ve been in worse shape. Maybe some of the toxic levels have been worse. Maybe we had more dead fish lying on the shores. But what’s going on in the lower food web of the Lakes is an unprecedented problem with widespread affects on the fishery. I do agree that there are tremendous recuperative powers in our Great Lakes, but they can be stressed to the point where there can be huge die offs, as we’ve seen in the past. Maybe we need to do a better job of getting the media involved and updating them in terms of the new scientific evidence showing the potential for reaching a tipping point. I think the 60% of your readers who say we are close to or at the tipping point are more accurate. One of the members of my scientific staff, Dr. John Gannon, was a co-author of a report that first used that term for the lakes. (John Gannon’s report

I hear there was a lot of excitement about a presentation at this year’s State of the Lakes Conference of what is now known about the thousands of islands in the Great Lakes. What were some of the key findings?

We have been working on this islands study and presentation for four years now. We now know, for the first time, how many Great Lakes Islands there are, for example, because we’ve created and then combined U.S. and Canadian information into a geographic information system.We know there are 31,407 Great Lakes Islands. By far, it is the largest collection of freshwater islands on Earth. It is globally unique. What define our islands are the lakes. These lakes are huge systems, and they have created unique ecological conditions on these islands. There is great diversity of island life, but the islands are very vulnerable. Because they are islands, they are isolated and surrounded 360 degrees by the forces of nature, they cannot hold as much life as the mainland areas can. You may find, for example, a quarter of the number of species that you might find on a comparable mainland area. At the same time, our Great Lakes Islands contain an unexpectedly high number of rare, endangered and threatened species and communities. They have rare plant communities, such as alvar and a high number of Arctic disjunct species.

You said the islands of the Great Lakes are “globally unique,” but are they globally significant?

They are definitely globally significant. There is nowhere else on Earth that has this type of island system. All islands are unique, but these are unique because of their biological diversity. I’ll read you a quote by Dr. Judy Soule, from a report we did in the mid-90s:

“Sprinkled across all five of the Great Lakes, thousands of islands form a landscape unique in the world. Nowhere else does the combination of vast, interconnected, mid-continental bodies of fresh water and such a number and variety of islands occur.”

It’s 850 miles from one end of the Great Lakes basin to the other, and a huge span of latitude and longitude, so you have tremendous diversity and variety of life on these islands.

In one of your reports on the Great Lakes, you posed the question, “Can we enjoy the islands without loving them to death or turning them into theme parks?” What do you think?

That has been my question for 20 years. We can. We need to respect that they are more vulnerable and can’t have the high levels of visitation that a mainland area might be able to sustain. We need to respect migratory patterns. One of their great importances is as migratory stopover sights for birds and waterfowl. We just have to be a little bit more conscious that we cannot treat islands the way we treat other areas. It cannot be “business as usual”.  There may be some islands that we have to enjoy from a distance, through binoculars.

One of the reasons most of our islands are in good condition is that we’re in this northern, temperate climate, so we don’t have a lot of people wanting to be there all year.

Do you have a favorite island?

They are all so unique. I have enjoyed every one that I’ve been on. I actually don’t go on many islands because I want to be sure they’re in good hands before I do anything else. We’re trying to concentrate on getting the science in place.

The goal of our project is this: Among these 31 thousand islands, if you were to conserve biodiversity, which are the most important? We did a very careful job of establishing a peer-reviewed island ranking criteria. Now, we are putting that into our island geographic information system so we can look at all of these islands and see which islands have the highest biodiversity values. Then we look at the threats that those islands are facing. If they are well protected now, fine. If they are not, they would be considered Priority Island Conservation Areas (we call them PICAs). These are the ones we recommend focusing conservation efforts on first.

Where are you in the prioritization process?

We have the Canadian data. (The majority of the islands are in the Canadian waters of the Great Lakes.) We haven’t quite gotten the U.S. data all put together. We have some rough cuts of the prioritization, but we want to continue to refine it. We should have it done and published in 2007.

What keeps you driven to work with these islands?

I just felt that someone had to do it. In 1986, in my first official Great Lakes job with the Michigan Office of the Great Lakes, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management wanted to give the state of Michigan almost a hundred islands. They had them in their jurisdiction but they didn’t really know what to do with them. I was asked to assess public support and help make that transfer happen.

I knew about the islands because I had been around them my whole life, boating with my dad, mother and brother. But I wanted to know more. I wanted to read a book about the islands. Well, there was no book about the islands (although I am working on one now). Then I thought, what is our policy on these islands? Well, we didn’t have a policy on the islands. Then I saw that the top managers at the Michigan Department of Natural Resources had differences of opinions about what to do with the islands. Some wanted to set up campgrounds. Others wanted to sell the islands. Others wanted to make them places to hunt. I realized we were making decisions about these islands but we knew nothing about them! I thought, we need to get the science in place and have a policy for how these islands should be handled. So ever since then, I’ve been working to pull together the people to do just that. Now, we’ve had several major projects and excellent funding from first the Michigan Coastal Management Program and NOAA, and most recently from the U.S. EPA’s Great Lakes National Program Office to do this amazing analysis so we can know which islands are the ones we need to pay special attention to and invest more resources to conserve.

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?

I don’t know that this assessment has been made. I think it’s easy for us to say that we really shouldn’t be cutting down those trees in the Amazon, and they are extremely important in terms of our planetary health. But we also need to look at the trees in our own backyard and our own development, and how we make decisions about the last remaining wildlands on Earth including many Great Lakes islands. We are all connected, and I just think everything we do matters.

We talk about sustainable development or sustainable use, but I think we need a different way of looking at things. One of the things I hope our culture begins to think about is compatible use. To me, we have to have ecological health. It can’t be equal with economic health and growth. I know others will disagree with me, and I respect that disagreement. But if we don’t have the biological, ecological foundation of life on Earth, economics doesn’t mean anything. It’s a house on shifting sand. You have to have that foundation. Our uses have to be compatible with ecological health and carrying capacity.

The Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement commits us to protecting the biological, physical and chemical integrity of these Lakes. I think we have to have that as our mantra. We need healthy economies. We need healthy people. But we cannot do that without a healthy ecosystem.

For this issue of Leaf Litter, we have also interviewed representatives from The Nature Conservancy, the U.S. EPA’s GLNPO and Bird Studies Canada. I’m assuming your office has worked directly with these organizations. Is that correct? 

Yes. You know, the Great Lakes community includes hundreds and hundreds of people who have devoted their entire careers to Great Lakes work, everything from the chemical questions, ecological questions, policy, social science studies, transportation studies, etc. Most of us are pretty well connected to one another. We cannot do this alone. We have to network, and we want to network. We are at varying levels of communication with folks in dozens of organizations on a daily basis doing heroic Great Lakes work. Our great-great-grandchildren will thank them.

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