By Jo Mathis/Bridge Magazine contributor
Ask John Hartig about his childhood, and you’ll hear about fishing with his father in Northern Michigan, biking around Belle Isle and hiking and canoeing at church camp Up North.
Hartig, who manages the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge, wants every Michigan kid in even the most urban environment to develop a love for the outdoors and commitment to conservation.
And he’s trying to recruit more adults to lead the way.
“Kids spend so much time in front of the television and computer screens, but we need to give kids an opportunity to develop a sense of wonder and be inquisitive about the outdoors, and to learn and explore,” said Hartig, 59, of Trenton. “I’m hoping, through the refuge, that we’re going to create these unique places where kids can come through their schools and Scout troops and to get a truly exceptional outdoor experience.”
Hartig has been an award-winning environmentalist in Michigan for more than 30 years.
And during that time, he has seen dramatic improvements. In fact, the Detroit River is one of the most remarkable ecological recovery stories in North America, he says, noting the return of bald eagles, peregrine falcons, lake sturgeon, lake whitefish, walleye and burrowing mayflies in recent years.
The Refuge office is located on the largest island in the Detroit River: Grosse Ile. It is housed in the Large Lakes Research Station at 9311 Groh Road, Grosse Ile, Michigan. Directions to the Refuge office are as follows:
From I-75, take the West Road Exit (east) that heads toward Trenton.
Proceed east approximately one mile and turn right (south) on Allen Road.
Proceed south approximately 1.5 mile and turn left (east) on Van Horn Road.
Proceed east on Van Horn Road to West Jefferson and turn left (north).
Proceed about 100 feet and turn right (east) on Grosse Ile Parkway.
Proceed to stop light at Meridian Road and turn right (south).
Proceed south on Meridian Road.
Head south about two miles to a stop sign at Groh Road.
Proceed through the intersection to the parking lot of Large Lakes Research Station.
Though there is much left to do, Hartig says the successes so far are a story future conservationists must be told.
Nearly 7 million people live within 45 minutes of the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge, which was established in 2001 as North America’s only international wildlife refuge — and one of the few urban ones. It includes islands, coastal wetlands, marshes, shoals and riverfront lands along 48 miles of the Detroit River and western Lake Erie. It protects habitat for 29 species of waterfowl, more than 100 fish species and more than 300 species of birds in Michigan and Ontario, Canada.
“Our refuge is like an experiment of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to build an international refuge in a major urban area, and in giving a compelling outdoor recreational and conservation experience, helping that next generation, which is so important,” says Hartig, who has written extensively about the Great Lakes, environmental stewardship, and sustainable economic development.
Urban refuges and conservation initiatives that make nature experiences part of everyday life are essential because most children are growing up in urban areas, he says. Offering fun, environmental education and interpretative programs is an important part of creating future conservationists.
“Those unique places do not have to be out in the wilderness five hours from here,” he says. “Those unique places are in our communities right here where we live. How neat is it that we’re creating these really unique destinations like Humbug Marsh and the Detroit Riverwalk and making them great places to be and educational, fun, safe and everything else?”
The refuge has worked with about 200 organizations and leveraged more than $33 million for conservation projects in its first 10 years.
Hartig wants to promote more partnerships between the generations. That’s why he’d like to see every state and federal environmental and conservation office in Michigan adopt a school, and then make it their mission to instill in students a concern for and love of the environment.
One way they could do that, he said, is by establishing small natural areas immediately adjacent to those schools, and then regularly teaching conservation and stewardship.
“A piece of land doesn’t have to be tremendously large in size to give a compelling experience to young kids,” he says.
Teachers and students have created just such a nature area at Southgate Anderson High School.
“That’s had a huge impact on kids,” he says. “They can just walk out their door and study the nature area as part of their curriculum. They can create a schoolyard habitat, and do soft shore engineering projects on a creek. We also have a close relationship with Gibraltar’s Carlson High School, because they’re surrounded by one of our units of 350 acres of wetlands … The Great Lakes Schools Ship will dock at the Refuge Gateway in the future and take kids out on theDetroitRiverandLake Erieand us it as a living laboratory.”
Students need to see adults who love conservation “walking the talk.”
“What a story to teach kids about how Native Americans once lived off this land, and then we developed it for industrial purposes, filled the wetlands, contaminated the soil, and walked away,” he says. “And now we’re cleaning it up as the Refuge Gateway, we’re recreating wetlands, we are restoring habitats, and putting our visitor center there with a laboratory and classroom where we’re teaching kids every day.”
Those who work with Hartig say his passion for the environment is obvious to all.
Refuge office manager Joann Van Aken noted Hartig’s ability to talk with anyone and pull them into the story of the Detroit River creates many new devotees to the mission of conservation, sustainability and ecological recovery.
Steve Dushane, the refuge’s assistant refuge manager, added that Hartig has dedicated much of his life to making the Detroit Riverand surrounding area a better place for both wildlife and all residents of southeastMichigan.
“For his passion and commitment to a cleaner, safer environment, each and every one of us owes him a debt of gratitude,” Dushane says.
Hartig and his wife, Patricia, have three daughters ages 25, 21, and 17.
“I hope my children and grandchildren will know a cleaner and safer Detroit Riverand Lake Erie than I did,” he says, “and that they will have a stewardship ethic because of their personal connection to these ecosystems and what they have learned.”
Jo Collins Mathis is a veteran journalist who has written for numerous publications in Washtenaw and Wayne counties. She was an award-winning reporter and columnist with the Ann Arbor News for 15 years, and a features page editor and columnist at the Ypsilanti Press.