“Profiles in Environmentalism” is a recurring segment on our blog where we shine a light on the dedicated people who are working to preserve the world around them. Big or small, local or national, every environmental organization works towards the same goal: providing a greener world for future generations.

The Great Lakes are a unique creation of nature, having been carved out of the North American continent some 10,000 years ago by retreating glaciers. What these glaciers left behind was a sprawling interconnected ecosystem comprised of five lakes that have become a crucial resource for millions of people throughout the region. The Great Lakes are bordered by eight U.S. states (Illinois, Michigan, Indiana, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin) and the Canadian province of Ontario. Naturally, no one state or province can protect the health of the Lakes, just as no one country can prevent climate change. It takes a unified and concerted effort from all players to make sure that the Great Lakes are properly maintained for the benefit of all.

This was the realization of the eight U.S. governors who founded the Great Lakes Protection Fund (GLPF) in 1989. The Fund was created through a one-time endowment of public funds amounting to $81 million, contributed by each of the founding states. The organization’s initial endowment was placed in a diverse range of investments, a portion of the earnings from which have been used to fund 252 regional projects to provide tangible improvements to the health of the ecosystem. The unique thing about the Great Lakes Protection Fund is its singular focus on a particular ecosystem. Before the founding of the Fund, there had never been an environmental organization created from public funding that focused on a particular ecosystem and its specific ecological issues. And though the Fund was initially kick started with public money, it is a private non-profit corporation that funds and demonstrates new methods of preserving the Great Lakes.

The Great Lakes Protection Fund does not replace the individual environmental agencies of its member states. In fact, one-third of the net income of the endowment is returned to the member states annually for their individual Great Lakes priorities. Instead, the Fund is meant to provide a consistent and stable bed for innovations and technologies that can benefit the region as a whole. And since it is a permanent endowment and not dependent upon the ever shifting budgets of state governments, it can provide uninterrupted support to project teams throughout the region.

Some of the most significant projects that have been funded by the GLPF include work on invasive species and preventing their release from the ballast water of large ocean-going vessels. When these large vessels travel to foreign ports they can bring back foreign species of marine life, including plants, animals, and bacteria. It was through ballast water that one of the Great Lakes most harmful invasive species, the Zebra Mussel, was brought across the Atlantic from the Caspian Sea region.

The GLPF has funded teams that have designed and tested the world’s first filtration system installed on an ocean-going vessel to remove a large range of organisms from ballast water. Funded teams have also devised protocols for evaluating the effectiveness of various ballast water treatment methods, as well as remote monitoring systems that can provide information on the composition and water levels inside of ships’ ballast tanks. The momentum that began with the Fund’s investments to stop the effects of ballast water and invasive species has prompted the International Maritime Organization to adopt guidelines that provide standards for treating and disposing of ballast water. The GLPF states that as these guidelines become requirements a global industry based on ballast water treatment will have a potential worth of over $34 billion.

The work of the Great Lakes Protection Fund has spawned a variety of environmental innovations that have enhanced conservation efforts at both the state and international level. Currently, the organization is focused on managing harmful agricultural runoff into the Great Lakes, as well as preventing the transplantation of new invasive species. In recent years, the Fund supported innovative work that led to the federally-approved Great Lakes Basin Compact, a multi-state compact to coordinate and resolve disputes over new, regionally-significant water uses . The Fund continues to explore new innovations that will lead to even greater outcomes for the environmental integrity of the Great Lakes.