April 17, 2024

Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. -- The Riverkeeper of the Hudson Spawns a Waterkeeper Alliance now Growing World-wide

Oct. 2, 2002
“In ten years Grand Traverse Bay will be completely different than today,” stated Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who serves as president of the Waterkeeper Alliance, chief prosecuting attorney for the Hudson Riverkeeper, co-director at the Pace Environmental Litigation Clinic in New York and senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Kennedy knows from experience what pollution can do to a waterway, having experienced first-hand what major corporations were doing to harm the Hudson River. In *The Riverkeeper,* a book he co-authored with John Cronin, he wrote, “The Hudson is both diverse and abundant. Because of its diversity, health and abundance, the Hudson is the Noah’s ark of the East Coast and perhaps the entire North Atlantic.”
Robert H. Boyle, *Sports Illustrated writer,* brought the “riverkeeper” idea to America when he wrote the book entitled, *The Hudson River: A Natural and Unnatural History* in 1969. The Hudson River was considered an open sewer, at the free disposal of major corporations to use it as their dumping grounds. Yet, the Hudson is the only large river in the North Atlantic that still retains strong spawning stocks of its entire historical migratory species, supporting recreational and commercial fisheries along the Atlantic coast worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Boyle wrote that the Hudson could use a “riverkeeper,” an English word for a game warden that protects private rivers from poaching. Today, what he launched has grown into a worldwide organization of waterkeepers. Boyle’s book brought Kennedy to the Hudson.

During Kennedy’s first spring in the Hudson Valley, he fished with Boyle and other fishermen who make their livelihood from the river. As he explored he felt it was a way of “getting his bearings,” just as he had learned to do in Virginia, where he rode horseback through the countryside with his family, and at Cape Cod where he discovered the seashore’s delights.
Kennedy‘s love of the environment has stayed with him throughout his life. His father, the late Senator Robert F. Kennedy, was of great inspiration to him. He wrote of him poignantly in *The Riverkeeper;* “My father abhorred cruelty and would not permit us to have guns or live feeders. I recall discovering him seated one afternoon on the grass beside the tennis court striving with tweezers to straighten the naturally curved bill of a red crossbill, believing it to be the result of an injury.”
Kennedy, who first desired to become a veterinarian, instead followed his father’s footsteps and graduated from the University of Virginia Law School, his father’s alma mater.
Meanwhile, the Hudson River Fishermen‘s Association, a group Boyle founded, retained John Cronin, a former commercial fisherman and congressional aide, to patrol the Hudson full time as a Riverkeeper in 1983. Since then, they have investigated and brought to justice more than 300 environmental lawbreakers. They believe in the rights of every citizen to enjoy and defend our nation‘s water resources.
Kennedy, Jr., joined the Riverkeeper organization in 1984. He and Cronin co-authored *The Riverkeepers* in 1997. Former Vice President Al Gore wrote the foreword, a fitting touch, since he made the environment part of his 2000 political campaign (in this year‘s campaign all five of Michigan’s gubernatorial candidates are using the same issue).

As for what the future holds, Kennedy believes the growth of our region will be to the detriment of Grand Traverse Bay. “The fish population will change, algae plumes will appear, “ he said in a phone interview. “There will be new viruses generated – in fact there are over two million new viruses potentially threatening our waterways. Not unlike what happened in Milwaukee in 1993 with water bacteria, cryptosporidia.” (That parasite sickenened thousands and killed 100 with immune system deficiencies. Manure was the suspected cause).
“The biggest threat to the bay is rapid development and its ensuing sprawl,” he said. Non-source point pollution such as agricultural pesticides, phosphates and nitrates are some of threats to not only our local region but across the entire global village.“
In the Grand Traverse area, new buildings, malls and subdivisions - with their paved parking lots and drives - contribute to an impervious surface where storm run-off water cannot percolate into the soil but rather drains into the bay.
“That is what we are all trying to avoid doing -- harm the bay, “ said John McKinney, Michigan Sea Grant Extension Agent. “The whole point of the Baykeeper program is to help protect the bay, as much as we can, from problems associated with development in the watershed. I think there are many examples of how we are succeeding at doing this – the Baykeeper and other Watershed Center programs, such as beach testing and our current watershed protection plan project are invaluable. In addition, many of our partner organizations, such as the Inland Seas Education Association, the Conservation District’s Boardman River Project, and other groups and individuals are working very hard to channel growth. Everyone realizes growth and change will occur,” he added, “And these very organizations and persons are working to offset the negative impact.”

Matt Heiman, fish biologist and land specialist for the Leelanau Conservancy, is trying to keep an optimistic attitude regarding the fish population and said so far no evidence suggests that the diversity of fish species have been altered.
“Invasive species are a definite concern, and their impact is imminent, however, will that impact result in a change in the fish composition of the bay? No one can say for sure,“ Heiman said. “Many were reporting the lake would be devastated by the spiny water flea, an exotic invader of the late ‘80s, but those catastrophic predictions or changes regarding the effect on fish populations have not occurred.
“People and their activities pose the biggest threat to the fish of the bay,“ Heiman added. “By degrading water quality through development of coastal wetlands and removal of habitat, fish are and will be impacted, that is certain, that has been proven, and that is happening. That is where the concern should come.”
Development has a serious impact on water quality. “If you pave ten percent of a watershed you irreparably have harmed it,” Kennedy explained. “Development is a death of one-thousand cuts. Unlike dealing with one polluter, such as a power plant, you have thousands of ‘cuts.’“
Another problem: tree canopies that formerly covered the area are disappearing to make way for development. “Without the tree canopy, which keeps the water cool, there is evaporation – warm holes,” Kennedy said.
“You want to leave a tree canopy over a stream – that will benefit the water, keeping it cool, thus helping the fish habitat,” agreed Rick Moore, district forester for the Leelanau and Grand Traverse County Districts. “By leaving trees along the streams and lakeshore the tree canopy helps filter out sediments before they get to the streams or lakes.”
Another problem Kennedy pointed to was pollution from afar, which affects us locally. A case in point is ozone pollution which drifts across Lake Michigan from Chicago and Milwaukee, registering some of the highest levels in the state each year in Benzie County. “Pollution is picked up and carried great distances into the atmosphere – it transports very easily,” he said.

The original Hudson Riverkeeper has grown into a world-wide Waterkeeper Alliance with more than 90 waterkeepers from coast to coast in America, and in Canada, Columbia, the Czech Republic, Costa Rica, Puerto Rico and Mexico.
Kennedy was recently heralded by *Successful Meetings* magazine as “a man whose message supercedes his golden name.” Kennedy speaks with not only experience and conviction, but with depth of heart and with his obvious passion for his lifelong love for the environment. Kennedy will be at the Grand Traverse Resort October 3rd to help kick-off the new Baykeeper program and to speak about the environment and what we can do together to help protect Grand Traverse Bay. For ticket information, call The Watershed Center at 231/935-1514.

For further information, please see; www.waterkeeper.org . (Riverkeeper.org takes you to the Hudson Riverkeeper web site….)


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