The axe, the plough and the net that accompanied Europeans to North America wrought profound ecological changes in our Laurentian Great Lakes. Forests were harvested and prairies were ploughed. The offal appeared downstream and began the process of adverse environmental change in receiving waters. New canals circumvented the natural barrier at Niagara Falls and the first wave of invaders soon responded. Expansion of commercial fisheries created hundreds of fishing villages. Invasion of sea lampreys coupled with growing exploitation effects caused local extirpation of many native and endemic species. Agricultural expansion, new manufacturing centers and urban growth accelerated the nutrient loading expressed in declining water quality for Lakes Ontario, Erie, Huron and Michigan. Each suffered what must be deemed a severe decline of previous ecosystem goods and services. In combination, this series proceeded from east to west. In response, international agreements and governments created agencies charged with reversing the growing burden of anthropogenic effects.
Lake Superior was saved from the extremes felt elsewhere because it is the top of the drainage landscape. Timber from the surrounding forests was sent to build large cities elsewhere. Local soils and the northerly climate did not invite agricultural development.
Lessons learned in the downstream lakes evoked institutional responses. Those were successful in developing sea lamprey control in combination with reduction in fishery exploitation before Lake Superior was totally depleted. Fueled by the growing environmental movement, restoration and rehabilitation programs developed for each of the lakes. Superior offered the prospects of greatest success because it was, in general, least altered. Many decades later, Superior serves as the best example of success in recovering from environmental adversity. This is not to say that restoration is complete or that all ecological problems are resolved. The heavy hand of humanity continues to cause important concerns about the present and future state of Lake Superior.
This volume offers a polythetic view of current conditions in Lake Superior and some insightful suggestions about where and how improvements should continue. The chapters presented range from basic reviews of what we know as a consequence of effective research, to those that identify the little we know about challenging environmental issues for the future. Among those are the continuing concerns about contaminants, the burgeoning march of invasive species and the portent of global change. We find some encouragement in the resilience of this large lake ecosystem. In many respects, it is a success story emerged from the insights of research merged with the mindful attention of management agencies. There is credit and hope reflected in our abilities to guide both the continuing restoration and effective protection of Gitche Gummee, the world’s largest lake. Hiawatha would probably be pleased by the progress chronicled in the following pages.
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