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Posts from the ‘conservation’ Category

Life on the edge: Shoreland Stewards program provides conservation tools for lakefront property owners

With Memorial Day fast approaching, many Michiganders are preparing to re-open cottages on the state’s more than 11,000 inland lakes. If you’re lucky enough to have a summer place on the water or live lakeside year-round, the way you landscape and manage your property can have a big impact on water quality and lake-dwelling wildlife.

Enter the Michigan Shoreland Stewards program. Launched last year by the Michigan Natural Shoreline Partnership, the program recognizes property owners who are using healthy property management practices to protect their inland lake and recommends steps they can take to further improve shoreline health.

“Our goal is to not only educate people about the issues our inland lakes are facing, but to give them some easy ways to work toward protecting their lake,” says Eli Baker, education and outreach specialist with Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council, a Petoskey-based member group of MEC and of the shoreline partnership.

When it comes to the life of an inland lake, the real action is near the shoreline. Bass, bluegills and other popular game fish species spawn in the shallows, as do frogs, toads and salamanders. Mayflies burrow into the nearshore sediment. Ducks, loons and other water birds make their nests on the banks. Minks and raccoons stalk the shoreline for a meal.

Along with providing important habitat for fish and wildlife, natural shorelines also filter out excess nutrients, keep the water cool by providing shade and stabilize banks by minimizing erosion from waves and ice.

Unfortunately, the shorelines of Michigan’s inland lakes are threatened by development. Property owners are replacing more and more of this important habitat with seawalls, turfgrass lawns and impervious surfaces like driveways and buildings.

Ten years ago the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency conducted its first-ever National Lakes Assessment. Working with the state Department of Environmental Quality, the EPA found that 40 percent of Michigan lakes had poor shoreline habitat and loss of that habitat was the biggest stressor on the health of our inland lakes. Read more

First #HowYouDune summit celebrates Michigan’s coastal treasures

More than 60 scientists, natural resource professionals, outdoor recreation enthusiasts and others gathered in Muskegon on Monday for the Freshwater Dune Summit, organized by MEC and our partners at Heart of the Lakes and West Michigan Environmental Action Council.

The first-time event was made possible with funding from the Michigan Coastal Zone Management Program, Office of the Great Lakes, Department of Environmental Quality; and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The planning committee took a creative approach to the summit by building in opportunities to meet local outdoor recreation leaders and get out and learn about the local community assets alongside local partners, such as the Run Muskegon running club, and Guy’s Ultimate Kayak Service.  Guests arriving Sunday took their pick between running or biking in the dunes or kayaking down the Muskegon River, followed by a showing of outdoor films with a side of local pizza and beer. Monday’s participants had the option to take a morning field trip to the dunes in P.J. Hoffmaster State Park and return for afternoon sessions, or to participate in morning sessions.

The centerpiece of the event was the announcement of a new survey of dune users to be launched May 29. (Once it’s live, you can find it at howyoudunesurvey.com.) Michigan State University professors Sarah Nicholls and Robert Richardson—who has been very busy with media interviews lately—introduced the survey during a lunchtime keynote address. The online tool will ask participants to identify where they recreate in Michigan’s coastal dunes, what activities they do there and how much they spend, along with questions about the noneconomic values of dunes. Read more

Big win for the Great Lakes: Schuette says no to fish farms in public waters

MEC and allies have argued for more than two years that commercial fish farms have no place in our Great Lakes. This week, Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette agreed.

“In an opinion released Tuesday, Schuette said net-pen aquaculture operators would have to register with the state, and laws related to aquaculture don’t permit registration of such facilities in Michigan’s Great Lakes waters,” the Associated Press reports.

While Ontario has allowed some fish farms along its Lake Huron shoreline, they have not been permitted in Michigan or other Great Lakes states. When proposals emerged for net-pen operations near Rogers City and Escanaba, MEC and a number of partners researched the risks, identified serious environmental and economic concerns and mounted a strong opposition.

“The Great Lakes are an irreplaceable resource that we must carefully steward, not only for our use but for future generations,” Schuette tells Michigan Distilled. “It is a priority of mine to protect these waters. The professional work relationship the MEC has provided, along with their expertise, has helped me carry out my duties on such issues as this important opinion on aquaculture.”

Schuette’s opinion was the latest in a series of statements from state officials sharing our view that net-pen aquaculture is too risky for the Great Lakes.

  • The MIRS newsletter reported (subscription required) Jan. 3 that Jamie Clover Adams, director of the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, “doesn’t envision a day when commercial net pen aquaculture would be allowed by Michigan in the Great Lakes.”
  • Last March, three state agencies recommended against allowing aquaculture in Michigan’s Great Lakes waters, citing serious environmental and economic risks identified by MEC and partners. The recommendation came a few weeks after statewide polling found nearly seven in 10 Michiganders were against opening the state’s Great Lakes waters to fish farming. Read more

DEQ delays final mine decision, sets stage for a nasty holiday gift

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality last week delayed its expected decision on a permit for the Back Forty Project, an open-pit gold, zinc and copper mine proposed for the western Upper Peninsula. Back in September, the agency indicated in a preliminary decision its intent to approve the request from Aquila Resources, opening a final window for the public to weigh in before the final decision set for Dec. 1. The deadline for that final decision has now been pushed back to Dec. 29.

Ho, ho, ugh. If approved, this permit would be a terrible Christmas gift to the people of Michigan, far worse than a lump of coal.

Our review reveals that Aquila’s permit application is deeply flawed, endangers nearby waters held sacred by local Native Americans, fails to meet requirements in state law and therefore should be rejected.

And while the extended decision deadline does not necessarily mean the agency is open to hearing more comments—officially, public comment on the proposed decision ended Nov. 3—we hope you’ll let your elected leaders and the DEQ hear about it anyway. A state review this half-hearted should land the agency’s Office of Oil, Gas and Minerals squarely on your naughty list.

Below are just few of the problems we found in our review. Our full comments can be found online here.

Alternatives not explored

For starters, Aquila is required by law to describe “feasible and prudent” alternatives that were considered as part of its Environmental Impact Analysis. Aquila provides no such analysis regarding their choice to create—and later backfill with reactive materials—a large, open mine pit on the banks of the Menominee River.  They offer just a 107-word justification with no description or analysis of any alternative approaches.

Menominee gathering

Members of Wisconsin's Menominee Tribe oppose the mine.

Worse, the rationale that is provided for dismissing alternatives is based solely on the applicant’s own economic considerations, not the long-term risks and tradeoffs related to environmental or natural resource concerns.

Similarly, Aquila proposed to process the ore onsite, including using cyanide treatment and flotation techniques to separate the valuable materials from the “waste” material. So why did Aquila not analyze an alternative mining approach in which the ore is removed immediately and processed at an offsite location away from the banks of the Menominee River? Apparently, that approach offers less profit. Or, in Aquila’s own words, “the cost for ore shipment to off-site facilities is not sustainable for the project value.”

Last time we checked, economic considerations alone—i.e., the applicant’s profit motives—are not sufficient to dismiss potential alternatives in an Environmental Impact Assessment. And yet, that approach is apparently good enough for the Michigan DEQ.

Analyzing alternatives—whether it’s the decision to use an open pit approach instead of an underground tunnel, or to process onsite instead of taking reactive materials offsite to be processed—is among the most basic requirements of state mining law in terms of “minimizing actual or potential adverse impacts.” Aquila’s lack of consideration of alternatives alone should justify a denial of the permit as proposed.

Scant details

Beyond failing to explore alternatives, Aquila’s application and the DEQ’s proposed permit also just leave too much of the actual mine plan up in the air. And—here’s the real cause for concern—the DEQ seems to be OK with that.

This permitting process is the department’s opportunity to judge, on behalf of Michigan residents, the rigor and seriousness of the company’s plans to minimize the environmental impacts of its proposed mine. Yet, the DEQ’s proposed permit allows Aquila to sail through the process, even without basic plans and documents that the company has had more than a decade to prepare. The state seems willing to grant the permit first, and then ask the company for fundamental information about how they plan to operate the mine safely.

Here are a few examples:

  • The proposed permit says the mining company “shall submit a plan…to monitor surface water and aquatic biota” and receive written approval of the plan from the DEQ before beginning mine operations. We can’t help but wonder why Aquila does not already have in place a plan for such a basic environmental safeguard. There needs to be a robust plan in place not only before the mining starts, but before any permit is granted.
  • Lake sturgeon

    The Menominee River provides vital spawning habitat for lake sturgeon.

    The permit requires Aquila to perform tests before building a “cut-off wall” to demonstrate that it is capable of keeping contaminated water out of the Menominee River, which is just 150 feet away. But it then lays out steps the company must take, “If the results of monitoring…indicate that the cut-off wall is ineffective for its intended purpose.” Preventing harm to the Menominee River—spawning ground for half of Lake Michigan’s lake sturgeon—should be a fundamental component of any permit for this mine. It’s no place for improvisation.

  • The department says “the permittee shall conduct a water withdrawal evaluation” before construction, “If withdrawal of water from the pit and water supply wells will exceed a cumulative total of over 100,000 gallons of water per day when averaged over a consecutive 30-day period.” If Aquila plans to withdraw significant amounts of water for its mine, the DEQ should require the company to demonstrate it won’t harm local stream flows and ecology before granting a permit, not after.
  • Similarly, the department says that, if monitoring shows that water withdrawals for the mine might impact groundwater levels, Aquila “shall submit a plan to MDEQ to prevent that potential impact.” If groundwater impacts are sufficiently likely that the DEQ mentions it in the proposed permit, shouldn’t the company just go ahead and submit that plan before a permit is granted? We think so.

These are by no means isolated examples of the DEQ’s “wait and see” approach to the Back Forty. The department’s proposed permit contains the phrase “prior to construction” no fewer than six times in reference to designs, plans and techniques that are yet to be supplied. It includes the phrase “shall submit” in relation to non-existent plans or specific engineering designs at least five additional times.

Violation of statute

Early in May of this year, the DEQ sent a letter to Aquila with 196 questions or requests for additional information about a wide variety of data, plans and techniques. A month later, the company responded with a letter of its own, prepared by a consultant. Many of the answers—maybe most—were ambiguous at best. Yet, the DEQ seems satisfied with these halfhearted responses.

For example, the department requested—reasonably and clearly—that Aquila provide a cyanide management plan as part of its permit application. The company’s response? “A more detailed Cyanide Management Plan will be provided prior to construction.” Rather than demanding that plan be provided before approving the permit, the DEQ rolled over and said, basically: OK, just send it to us before you start mining. There are many other examples of this ridiculous, hands-off regulatory approach in the proposed permit.

Bottom line, our DEQ is proposing to grant the permit for a major open pit mine—one that would unearth and expose millions of tons of acid-generating material and place it in a giant open pit adjacent to a magnificent river—without requiring even basic, common-sense details about how, or if, the plans and techniques being proposed will work.

Rafting Menominee

The Menominee River is a popular rafting destination.

By our read, this is a clear violation of Michigan statute, which states that the mining, reclamation, and environmental protection plan for any proposed mining operation must include both “a description of materials, methods, and techniques that will be utilized,” and (with our emphasis added) “information that demonstrates that all methods, materials, and techniques proposed to be utilized are capable of accomplishing their stated objectives in protecting the environment and public health.”

This DEQ mining permit is one of several approvals Aquila will need before moving forward. The project also requires a state air permit, a wetland permit and a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit. But the mining permit is the heart and soul of the project—the only reason the company would need to seek the other approvals.

This is a major project with huge implications, not just for Michigan and our immediate neighbors in Wisconsin, but for the Great Lakes region overall. There are very few sulfide-based mines permitted in the region, so each new one that gets reviewed essentially sets a new precedent, a new standard. The least the DEQ can do is hold every project to the highest standards required in law, and to demand information adequate to really judge the project’s impacts on Michigan’s land, water, people and communities.

We hope the DEQ carefully reviews all the comments and decides to deny the permit. That would be a real Christmas gift to the people and amazing natural resources of our state. But given their track record with sulfide mining, we’re not optimistic.

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Top photo: Deb Nystrom via Flickr.
Menominee Tribe photo: Environmental Health News.
Juvenile sturgeon photo: USFWS via Flickr.
Rafting photo: Deb Nystrom via Flickr.

Gov. Snyder visits Michigan’s “Big Wild”

Our ears perked up when we learned recently that Gov. Rick Snyder and his family took a trip this summer to the Pigeon River Country State Forest.

For one thing, we’re always hungry for stories from the “Big Wild.” We wanted to hear about the governor’s adventures and find out if he saw any of the roughly 1,300 elk that live in and around the rugged, 106,000-acre forest.

The main reason we were so interested in the governor’s trip, though, is that MEC’s Brad Garmon serves on the Pigeon River Country Advisory Council, the 18-member body that provides recommendations to the director of the Department of Natural Resources about management of the largest contiguous tract of public land in the Lower Peninsula. As we wrote in a newsletter story announcing Brad’s appointment, the advisory council “was created to uphold the Concept of Management the DNR adopted in 1973 after years of contentious litigation over oil and gas issues. The goal is to forever safeguard the forest’s wild character.”

When Brad heard about the visit through the advisory council, we contacted Gov. Snyder’s office to ask about highlights and to see if the governor thinks there’s potential for adopting the advisory council model to involve citizens in guiding the management of other special pieces of public land in Michigan.

Our thanks to Gov. Snyder and his staff for not only answering our questions, but for producing this video and sharing some photos from the trip!

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With spring in the air, MEC is shaping a plan to protect pollinators

Editor’s note: This post is by MEC intern Teha Ames.

A serious problem that should not be overlooked by the state of Michigan and its residents is the decline of pollinator populations.  Pollinators include bees, butterflies, beetles, hummingbirds and other animals that help flowering plants reproduce by transferring pollen from plant to plant. Pollinator population declines have been linked to habitat loss, parasites, pathogens, pesticide exposure, climate change and other factors. A global assessment of pollinators published in February found a growing number of pollinators are threatened with extinction.

The services pollinators provide are essential for feeding the world and for supporting agricultural jobs. In 2014, President Obama issued a memorandum highlighting why honey bees and other pollinators are important in the United States. “Honey bee pollination alone adds more than $15 billion in value to agricultural crops each year in the United States,” it noted. The memorandum also established a Pollinator Health Task Force between several government agencies to combat the problem. In its 2015 strategy to protect pollinators, the task force laid out three clear nationwide goals: reduce honey bee colony losses during winter to no more than 15 percent within 10 years; increase the eastern population of monarch butterflies (which includes Michigan’s monarchs) to 225 million by 2020; and restore or enhance 7 million acres of land for pollinators over the next 5 years.

Since Obama issued the memorandum, several states have joined the fight for pollinator protection. One state that has not created a pollinator protection plan yet is Michigan. Fortunately, MEC and other supporting stakeholders are helping the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development to create such a plan.Honey bee Read more

Momentum growing in push to keep factory fish farms out of the Great Lakes

Today was a big day in the ongoing effort to protect our fisheries and fresh water by keeping factory fish farming out of the Great Lakes.

Sean Hammond, MEC deputy policy director, testified this morning at a standing-room-only meeting of the House Natural Resources Committee in support of House Bill 5255. Sponsored by Rep. Jon Bumstead, R-Newaygo, the bill would ban net-pen aquaculture in Michigan’s Great Lakes and connecting waters. Sen. Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge, has introduced companion legislation, Senate Bill 526.

MEC was among numerous environmental, conservation and angling groups and concerned citizens at the hearing to speak out in favor of banning commercial aquaculture in the Great Lakes. Only one person—who happens to have a financial stake in a proposed fish farm—testified against the ban.

And at a noon press conference, Sean joined Rep. Bumstead, Sen. Jones and Dan Eichinger, executive director of Michigan United Conservation Clubs, in releasing the results of an EPIC-MRA poll showing that nearly 7 in 10 Michiganders oppose allowing fish farms in our Great Lakes. The opposition cut across geographic, political and geographic lines and—here’s the kicker—grew stronger when survey participants heard arguments from both sides of the issue.

Sean testifies

Sean testifies before the House Natural Resources Committee.

You can read more about the poll in our press release.

As we’ve written here before, proposals to open the Great Lakes to net-pen aquaculture—which involves cramming thousands of fish into floating cages and fattening them on food pellets—pose a serious risk to fish populations, water quality and the recreational value of our greatest natural resource. Among other concerns, fish farms would introduce the threat of disease transmission from farmed fish to wild populations and concentrate huge amounts of fish waste in bays and harbors, potentially triggering toxic algae outbreaks.

To get up to speed on our concerns about Great Lakes fish farming, read more here, here, here and here.

It’s important to note that MEC and our partners support aquaculture done the right way, and hope to see that industry thrive in Michigan. Contained, land-based systems that properly manage fish waste are a welcome and sustainable source of good, local food. But Michigan residents shouldn’t be forced to subsidize the abuse of our Great Lakes by letting companies use our shared water as a sewer. Especially not when the proposed fish farms would create—at best—just 44 jobs.

We appreciate the leadership shown by Sen. Jones and Rep. Bumstead, and we’re confident we will achieve the right outcome for the Great Lakes.

But this is far from a slam dunk. On Wednesday, in fact, Sean will testify once again—this time in front of the House Agriculture Committee—to oppose a set of bills that would lay out the welcome mat for high-risk Great Lakes aquaculture. And we’ll be there when the natural resources committee continues taking testimony next week on the proposed ban.

Now would be a great time to pick up the phone and let your state legislators know where you stand. You can find your representative here and your senator here.

Since there are multiple bills on both sides of the issue, let’s keep the message simple: Net-pen fish farms are all risk and no reward for Michigan, and the Legislature should act now to keep them out of the Great Lakes.

Thank you for helping urge state leaders to live up to their role as stewards of the greatest freshwater resource on Earth. Together, we’ll chalk up a crucial win for the Great Lakes.

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Net-pen fish farm photo courtesy Sam Beebe via Flickr.

MEC and Tip of the Mitt highlight policy options worth pursuing in new UM fracking report

The University of Michigan last week released a report three years in the making that offers a comprehensive review of Michigan’s policy options regarding fracking for natural gas and oil.

While fracking has been used for decades in Michigan, new techniques use far greater quantities of water and chemicals and pose greater risks to the environment and human health. Some recent fracking operations in Michigan have used as much as 21 million gallons of fresh water and more than 100,000 gallons of chemicals.

Many of the drilling sites are in pristine parts of Michigan known for their natural beauty, and it’s crucial to put the right policies on the books to protect these fragile areas that are the backbone of our tourism economy.

The Department of Environmental Quality updated its fracking regulations in March. The new rules are far from perfect, but they include some important provisions that reflect input from MEC and our allies during a public comment period on the draft rules. For instance, drilling companies now have to disclose what chemicals they’ll use before they inject them into the ground—not 60 days later, as previous rules allowed. The companies also are required to test water quality before drilling so they can be held accountable if contamination occurs.Fracking graphic

The impressive research project by UM’s Graham Sustainability Institute enlisted experts, decision makers and key stakeholders to outline policy options. It does not recommend any specific course of action, but by presenting a menu of options, including the pros and cons of those options, it offers valuable input that can help Michigan regulators improve the state’s oversight of fracking. Importantly, it also notes that not enough study has been done to quantify the risks of high-volume hydraulic fracking on human health and the environment.

You can read the full report here. It’s a big document with a lot to chew on. Fortunately, MEC Policy Director James Clift and Grenetta Thomassey—a member of MEC’s board and program director for MEC member Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council—served on the advisory board for the study and are well-acquainted with the report and the issues involved.

Using that inside knowledge, James and Grenetta pulled out of the 174-page report some key areas that deserve special consideration by Michigan lawmakers and the Snyder administration. MEC supports each of the following policy options, which we’ve categorized by topic and identified by the number assigned to them in the report and the page on which they appear.

Public notice and involvement

2.3.3.2—Increase public notice. (Page 42.) Pursuing this policy option would expand public notification when the state proposes to lease oil and gas drilling rights on public land. The state now issues public notice in newspapers, sends announcements to local governments and posts information on the Department of Natural Resources website, among other measures. This policy option calls for notifying all adjacent landowners and posting announcements at the parcel itself, if the land is used for recreation. As the report notes, “Expanding public notice offers a relatively inexpensive way to increase transparency about potential state mineral rights leasing and ensure that affected parties have an opportunity to comment.”

2.3.3.3—Require DNR to prepare a responsiveness summary. (Page 42.) Current rules do not require the DNR to respond to public comments on state mineral leases. The basic idea here is to require the department to compile a summary of public comments received, how the department responded to public input and how that input influenced DNR’s decision about whether and how to lease the rights on that parcel. As the report notes, such a requirement would strengthen the state’s accountability to the public. Read more

Guest post: Coldwater River fiasco highlights need for drain code reform

Editor’s note: This piece was contributed by Dr. Bryan Burroughs, executive director of Michigan Trout Unlimited and a member of MEC’s board of directors. It originally appeared in the Summer 2015 issue of Michigan Trout Magazine. It has been edited here for length.

In much of southern Michigan trout streams are a rare breed. There are a lot of reasons for this rarity, some natural, but many are the result of us turning this part of the state into a “working landscape.” It’s filled with urban areas and farmland that completely altered the natural hydrology of our southern Michigan streams, rendering them impaired or broken in terms of cold, clean water. So the rare handful of streams that have persisted cold enough and high quality enough to still support trout are coveted and revered around here, where most of the residents of the state live. These southern Michigan trout streams are analogous to a trillium flower growing up through a crack in a busy downtown sidewalk. The Coldwater River, located about 40 minutes west of Lansing, was one of these rare trilliums of a trout stream. That is until the local drain commission and its agents dug a 12-mile trench in the ground around that rare little blossom.

The river

The Coldwater River, also referred to as the Little Thornapple River, originates at Jordan Lake in the town of Lake Odessa, flows southward almost to Hastings, turns northwest and then flows downstream till it joins the Thornapple River, which then joins the Grand River. Despite originating from a lake and flowing through farm lands, this river kept temperatures cold enough to support brown trout.

Trout Unlimited (TU) members from Lansing to Grand Rapids frequented the river as their local trout angling waters, and over the last decade or so had invested significant time, energy and money into enhancement efforts in this watershed, including the removal of the Freeport Dam last year. Well-known Michigan trout guru Jim Bedford, who has fished more of the state’s trout rivers than just about anyone, identified the Coldwater River as having produced more trophy brown trout for him than any other river in the state. Normally I’d never divulge such privileged information, but unfortunately it won’t offer that kind of quality fishing any time soon. Read more

Guest post: Conservation champion Willard Wolfe enters Environmental Hall of Fame

Editor’s note: This post was contributed by noted writer, environmental historian, policy advisor and former MEC staff member Dave Dempsey.

When dentist and fly fisherman Willard Wolfe saw the destruction of the trout streams he loved and the unbridled alteration of stream and lake habitat across Michigan, he didn’t get mad—he got  to work.

Thanks to his vision and leadership, a strong draft bill was handed to activists who got it passed. Michigan had an historic lakes and streams protection law less than two years later. The 1972 Inland Lakes and Streams Act has saved countless Michigan water resources from damming, channelizing and filling.

For initiating, choosing, and chairing the statewide ad hoc committee that authored that law, and for a life of conservation activism, Wolfe was inducted into the Michigan Environmental Hall of Fame in May. A project of the Muskegon Environmental Research and Education Society (MERES), the Hall of Fame welcomed several other past and present advocates into its ranks in the same ceremony, held in the Gerald R. Ford Museum in Grand Rapids.

For those who knew Will, who died in 2011, the recognition was fitting.  A gentleman with a quiet but firm persistence, he sought no reward for his conservation work—yet that work had lasting, statewide significance.

“His long-standing commitment to the joys of trout fishing on Michigan’s beautiful natural rivers made him a logical leader in the effort to provide effective controls,” MERES said in announcing Will’s induction. “This resulted in the Inland Lakes and Streams Act to protect the natural characteristics of our lakes and streams. Michigan led the nation in those years to provide adequate protections for these natural values.”

As is true of many conservationists, Will’s activism had roots in childhood. Growing up on Grosse Ile in the Detroit River, he was surrounded by nature.  “As an Eagle Scout, he learned the names of the wildlife and many plants,” said his wife Joan. “As an enthusiastic small-boat builder and sailor, as well as just living on the river, he also learned to love wildlife. While his best friends hunted ducks and geese, he was content to just learn about them.” Read more