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Mich. Republican urges action in carp crisis

Carping criticism.


  • Illustration by Lee DeVito.

When you look at President Obama’s proposed new budget, you’d never guess that Michigan has been one of his strongest bases of support, right from the start. Obama ran far ahead of his national averages here in both of his presidential elections, despite facing GOP candidates who, on paper, should have had a bigger advantage than most.

John McCain got national headlines back in 2000, when he attracted Democratic and independent crossover support to thrash George W. Bush in that year’s Republican primary.

But when he went up against Obama in 2008, he lost by an astonishing 800,000 votes. Four years later, some thought native son Mitt Romney would be the one GOP candidate with a shot at winning Michigan. But Obama won this state easily. Mitt even got crushed in Oakland County, where he grew up.

Obama, like us, is a son of this region. He lives in Chicago, or did before winning an eight-year-lease on the Rose Garden.

He knows, or should, that pretty much everything depends on the Great Lakes staying healthy — and on a brisk trade between Ontario, Michigan, and the whole region.

But some of his 2015 budget looks like he doesn’t like us, or doesn’t get it. Obama wants to cut $25 million out of the $300 million Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. This makes little sense. The initiative helps control invasive species.

This money is used to try to prevent or control polluted harbors and rivers where they enter the lakes. It fights agricultural runoffs and choking algae blooms.

And it fights Asian carp. Obama hasn’t exactly been on the front lines of the anti-carp efforts. Matter of fact, the president has been more part of the problem than the solution.

Back more than a century ago, the environmental geniuses of the day dug a series of canals that connect Lake Michigan with the Mississippi River. Nobody wants to talk about this now, but one reason was to get rid of Chicago’s wastewater, which is an elegant word for shit and sewage.

These days, a lot of Chicago-based barge traffic moves on the canal, and they would be financially hurt if the canal were closed. President Obama doesn’t want to close it either.

But whatever inconvenience and loss the barge operators would experience is likely to seem insignificant compared to what will happen to the Great Lakes if the carp get established in them. These aren’t just pests like zebra mussels, which are bad enough. They suck up all the food in sight.

Bighead carp, which weigh as much as 100 pounds, are some of the ugliest fish in existence. Silver carp are around 60 pounds, and jump when excited; they have damaged boats and, in one case, broke a person’s jaw. They’ve been working their way up the Mississippi since the 1980s, when some apparently escaped from catfish farms in a flood.

Expert biologists agree on this: If a breeding population ever gets into the lakes, it will be mostly goodbye, recreational boating and fishing industries, which could cost the economy billions. Carp DNA has been found in Lake Michigan.

But they’re apparently not established there yet. The politicians have dithered. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was ordered to come up with a solution, but issued a report in January that satisfied nobody. It listed eight options, one of which was simply doing nothing.

Well, now one Michigan lawmaker is actually trying to do something — and she deserves support. True, U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow has been trying to get our attention about the carp for years. But Republican Candice Miller, the congresswoman from Macomb County’s Harrison Township, has introduced a bill (HR 4001) that provides for the only sure solution.

She would order the Army Corps of Engineers to get to work — within a year — to permanently close the canals and seal off Lake Michigan from the Mississippi River.

Miller is a deeply conservative Republican who is usually anything but eager to spend money. But she grew up on the water, where her family owned a boat supply shop. She knows how much is at stake. “The cost of doing nothing is too high,” she told me. Closing the canals would just be correcting a mistake we made a century ago in connecting the waterways.

The odds against her are high. Lawmakers in her own party who represent Chicago-based shipping interests, like U.S. Sen. Dan Coats of Indiana, strongly oppose closing the canals.

Democrats may not be inclined to support her because she’s a Republican. Indeed, after I talked about Miller’s plan on the radio, one of Stabenow’s aides said it wouldn’t work because the Army’s separation plan is only 5 percent developed. 

That kind of shortsighted thinking is great … if you’re an Asian carp. The government needs to tell the Army to get it done, period, which is how World War II was won.

We can act, or we can forget swimming in the lakes and learn to love the taste of Asian carp. My understanding is that it tastes sort of like a mixture of canned tuna fish and mud.


As I noted three weeks ago, former State Sen. Jack Faxon is today one of the underappreciated men in Michigan politics. He was the guy who wrote the language saying pensions couldn’t be cut, back when he was the youngest delegate to the 1961-62 constitutional convention.

Faxon was also the man who started state funding for the arts, back in the day; today, he is 77 with the mind of an energetic man in his 40s. Not surprisingly, he has a novel idea to save Detroit: Physically shrink it. 

“The emergency manager should appoint a boundary commission, and get rid of a lot of this land that is just largely vacant fields,” he said.

How would that work? “If you let it simply go back to being townships, the county would have to provide services. Detroit simply doesn’t have the resources to do that anymore.”

Does that sound crazy? Well, in fact, Detroit originally was a lot smaller. There’s nothing sacred about the idea that Detroit is, was, and evermore shall be 139.6 square miles.

Back in 1910, Detroit was a mere 40 square miles. By 1920, when it had more than one-third more people than now, the city was only 78 square miles. However, it quickly grew to its present size in 1926, the last time the city added land. Detroit kept adding people till the early 1950s, when it may have briefly had two million souls. There are fewer than 700,000 now.

“The city is really doing pretty well downtown, along Grand Circus Park, up to Midtown,” Faxon says. 

Faxon, who was born in Detroit in 1936, asks: Why not face reality, settle for what works, and concentrate on building a smaller, vibrant muscular city? That would make sense …

Except, some city politicians might feel well, neutered. Give up land? The horror, the horror. How could reshaping a city into something that works possibly justify that? 

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