Today, Rep. Mark Kirk’s (R-Ill.) long-standing commitment to preserving and restoring the Great Lakes will be recognized when he is given the Great Laker Award at the third annual Healing our Waters conference in Chicago, Ill. Kirk has represented the 10th district in Illinois since 2001. He and his family live at the former Fort Sheridan in Highland Park and he has a long, personal history with Lake Michigan. Since he has been in office he has joined a group of moderate republicans working to protect the environment. Kirk authored the Great Lakes Water Protection Act, the Mercury Pollution Reduction Act, ensured that Fort Sheridan’s bluffs remain protected from development, helped find funds to clean up Waukegan Harbor and opposed drilling in the Great Lakes and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The result of his dedication to supporting the Great Lakes has been a 75 percent approval rating last year from the League of Conservation Voters – a group that assess Congressmen on their environmental record – and, now the Great Laker Award. Recently, Kirk took time to answer some of HOW’s questions, please read the Q&A that follows.
Q: Why are the Great Lakes important to you?
I grew up on the shores of Lake Michigan. I learned to swim and sail a Sunfish in her waters. The lake nearly took my life at a young age and taught me an important lesson about the powerful forces of nature and the defining moments that [affect] the course of our future. The Great Lakes are the crown jewel of the Midwest – from the 30 million Americans that rely on them for drinking water, to the millions of dollars that are generated in recreation and fishing, we need to do all that we can to keep our waters clean and safe.
Q: How have the Great Lakes played a role in your Congressional service?
Protecting and restoring the Great Lakes has been a top priority of mine from the day I was sworn into office in 2000 and remains a major concern for my constituents and myself. From helping to enact the Great Lakes Legacy Act to introducing legislation preventing the invasion of foreign species into the lakes and banning sewage dumping, to most recently stopping BP from increasing their pollution into Lake Michigan, I spend countless hours working to protect this precious natural resource. I love working on this issue because it inspires real passion in people.
Q: You were one of the first Members to sign the Great Lakes Collaboration Implementation Act – what is the status of this legislation?
This legislation originated in the 108th Congress as two separate bills introduced by Representatives Verne Ehlers (R-MI) and Rahm Emanuel (D-IL). I was disappointed that the differences could not be reconciled in order to present a united, bipartisan front. Reps. Ehlers and Emanuel were able to come together in the last Congress and introduce a single bill together. This was a critical step in bringing the issue of Great Lakes restoration to the national forefront.
H.R. 1350 provides for comprehensive restoration of the Great Lakes including invasive species reduction and prevention, wastewater infrastructure improvement, wetland and habitat protection, toxic substance clean up, enhanced research and monitoring, and improved restoration cooperation and coordination. Many of the provisions were taken from individual bills, such as the elimination of a vast loophole in Coast Guard procedure to prevent invasive species from entering the lakes. I authored this language in the Great Lakes Invasive Species Control Act, and I was pleased it was incorporated into the larger restoration bill.
The Great Lakes Collaboration Implementation Act was most recently referred to the House Committees on Transportation and Infrastructure, Natural Resources, Science and Technology, and Administration for further consideration. I expect a hearing on Great Lakes protection and restoration to be held sometime this fall.
Q: How do we get the Great Lakes restoration efforts onto Republican presidential candidates agendas?
As infuriating as BP’s recent effort to increase pollution into Lake Michigan was, it brought together lawmakers, environmental organizations and tens of thousands of citizens to unite around Great Lakes protection, proving this is an issue voters care about. Through the Internet and other mass media forums, ordinary citizens are able to shape campaign discussions today more than ever. Great Lakes lawmakers, residents and advocates must use the momentum of the BP events to press candidates to discuss restoration and how their administrations would address these efforts.
Q: Would you mind sharing a favorite memory from the Lakes?
My favorite memory of the Great Lakes comes from the summers I spent at Warren Dunes State Park in Michigan. The dunes and beaches there showed me what all shoreline communities along the Great Lakes could become.