Federal budget undermines Great Lakes boating growth

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The Great Lakes are some of America’s most important and irreplaceable natural assets. Yet, they are under attack by President Bush’s unforgivable disregard for a body that represents nearly 20 percent of the world’s clean freshwater. The Bush administration has proposed a budget for fiscal 2009 that would jeopardize the welfare of a region that is home to 4.3 million boaters in the United States and 1.5 million in Canada.

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Despite asking for $3 trillion in the budget for 2009, the White House recommends reducing spending for the annual routine navigational dredging projects and Great Lakes restoration efforts. These reckless cuts have drawn the ire of everyone with a stake in the Great Lakes: recreational boaters and commercial shipping concerns.

The negative economic impact of this reduced dredging on commercial navigation is clear, a crippling blow to an aging industry hardly able to stay afloat. What’s less widely known is what this crippling blow could do to the tremendous value of recreational boating to our region.

According to estimates provided by the Great Lakes Commission, the 4.3 million recreational boats registered in the eight Great Lakes states generate nearly $16 billion for the region’s economy annually, five times the estimated economic impact of commercial navigation.

Recreational boaters and commercial navigation have long been furious with the backlog of federal dredging projects on the Great Lakes, and the historically low lake levels have been escalating the demand for such projects. The lack of dredging is inhibiting not only commercial shipping, but also recreational boating, threatening access to mooring in many marinas throughout the region.

Recreational boating is big business for the Great Lakes region, supporting 107,000 jobs — nearly a quarter-million if you consider secondary economic impacts. Moreover, recreational boating’s impact is more widely dispersed among the smaller harbors and communities across the Great Lakes region as compared to commercial navigation.

That’s why President Bush’s proposed 2009 budget, which recommends reducing spending on Great Lakes dredging by 35.5 percent, should alarm not only boaters and shippers, but everyone throughout the region. As it was, only $140 million had been approved for dredging in 2008. Cutting that amount by more than a third will further hamper the vessels that trawl our lakes — and tow dollars behind them. With already low water levels continuing to recede, now is perhaps the worst time to cut back any further on Great Lakes dredging.

Sportfishermen — comprising an estimated 74 percent of the recreational boaters — also will be affected. Great Lakes fisheries, which are already under attack by forces such as invasive species and habitat loss, would be further endangered by Bush’s budget cuts.

This is a critical time when recreational boating is cultivating new friends in its portfolio of coastal municipalities on the Great Lakes, breathing life into brownfields, which were left behind in the aftermath of departing product-building commerce with its commercial navigation.

The City of Waukegan, Ill., for example, took the first steps to convert its Lake Michigan waterfront from an industrial area into a hub of public access and recreation, with boating serving as the foundation for its new lakefront. Likewise, in an example of brownfields redevelopment that can be replicated in other parts of the Great Lakes, the Chicago Park District has proposed converting the former USX steel mill site on the city’s southern coast into a municipal marina. That would reopen to the public this once closed-off industrial property. Why would President Bush submit a budget that would hamper what can be achieved through fostering Great Lakes boating?

For Great Lakes recreational boating, the White House’s proposed budget is, in a word, derelict. Last year, Congress was able to override President Bush’s veto of the Water Resource and Development Act of 2007 and move forward a vital piece of water-related legislation. It is equally important that Congress stand up to him now and reject his blatant disregard for the Great Lakes. Our region’s economy and ecology are both at stake.

The Great Lakes Boating Federation also wants to do its part to stop any further damage to the region.
It wants to establish a comprehensive 501(c)(3) non-profit organization that would represent the voice of recreational boating on the Great Lakes. The federation would be able to pursue foundation grants and government funding, and all financial contributions will become tax deductible.

The federation’s policy work and public access advocacy not only mean more opportunities for boaters, but also would sustain development, economic renewal and environmental remediation for communities large and small around the lakes.

F. Ned Dikmen is the chairman of the Great Lakes Boating Federation.

This article originally appeared in the August 2008 issue.

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