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(Editor’s Note: This article first appeared in the International Joint Commission Newsletter Great Lakes Connection. It is reprinted here with the permission of the authors.)

In 2018, newsletter readers learned about an experiment to connect remote Great Lakes island communities through a collaborative network aimed at building relationships, exchanging information and leveraging resources. Hopes were high that the idea would prove worthwhile and sustainable for islanders across the vast region. Time has rewarded those hopes.

In 2021, the Great Lakes Islands Alliance (GLIA) created a new project manager position (with generous support from the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation) to advance its communications needs and help grow network programs. GLIA now facilitates a cohort of island chambers and economic development organizations–a subset of like-minded officials who had not previously connected. 

Fast forward to fall 2022: GLIA has members from 19 communities, spanning every Great Lake in the United States and Canada. The alliance continues to grow while serving member communities despite seismic shifts in society, politics and the environment–or perhaps, because of them.

GLIA membership is voluntary and open to any islander. Some participate in GLIA simply to listen and learn; others lend their time and skills by serving on the GLIA Steering Committee, launching and administering the alliance website, presenting on a webinar or providing voice-over narration for island videos. All members provide a unique link to their community. 

Members have found ways to overcome challenges of inadequate broadband services, which allowed for monthly meetings to comfortably shift to the Zoom webinar platform.

GLIA looks to other regional, national and international organizations and networks that align with its interests and is now a member of the Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition.

The Great Lakes Islands Summit came to Lake Erie on Oct. 2-5, 2022, after a two-year, pandemic-related hiatus. The summit rotates to a different island each year, with the host island serving as lead organizer. Travel logistics were complicated but islanders took it in stride as 2022 brought the first-ever “progressive” summit, allowing visits to four islands: the Kelleys, Middle Bass and South Bass (Put-in-Bay) islands of Ohio and Pelee Island of Ontario.

New Islanders

The Covid-19 pandemic has had an outsized impact on many islands, which suddenly became magnets for people looking to escape. Island properties on the market for years were purchased by first-time visitors from distant states, some of whom were unfamiliar with remote island living. 

This influx of new residents was a mixed bag for many islands. On one hand, each new islander brings promise for the community with new ideas, resources and skills. Struggling island businesses and schools welcomed these additions. But there were strains on local services, increased demand for stronger telecommunications and risks to fragile island environments.

Protection of the Great Lakes is a high priority for GLIA. These are communities surrounded by water. Local water quality challenges differ by lake and island, be it algal blooms, invasive plants or risk of chemical contamination. Islanders share a common desire for good quality water to support their beloved species and habitats as well as other uses like drinking water, swimming, fishing and boating. 

Not to be overlooked is water quantity. More than anyone, islanders appreciate that Great Lakes water levels have taken an unprecedented swing in the past decade. Shoreline erosion on islands impacts public access, properties, infrastructure and habitats. Unlike mainland communities, islands have a fully waterfront border and thus assessing and mitigating risk is an enormous endeavor. These small local governments often struggle with limited staffing and resources to identify and implement solutions to make their shorelines resilient to both extremes.

pelee island lake erie

Pelee Island, Ontario. Credit: Ian Virtue

Islanders recognize that change is inevitable and not all bad. GLIA seeks to find solutions to these challenges and prepare islands for future obstacles.

And above all, we celebrate islands.

To learn more, see our website, YouTube channel and Facebook page.

Peter Huston, Matt Preisser and GLIA Steering Committee

Great Lakes Islands Alliance

Peter Huston is GLIA project manager. He is employed by The Stewardship Network.

Matt Preisser is GLIA coordinator, employed by the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy.

GLIA Steering Committee

The committee includes:

● Bob Anderson, Beaver Island, Michigan (Lake Michigan), interim chair

● Mike Gora, Middle Bass Island, Ohio (Lake Erie)

● Ned Hancock, Madeline Island, Wisconsin (Lake Superior)

● Jordan Killam, Kelleys Island, Ohio (Lake Erie)

● Joe Shorthouse, Manitoulin Island, Ontario (Lake Huron)