A man once called Lake Champlain’s loudest advocate is being honored for his tireless devotion to Vermont’s most important body of water.
James Ehlers, executive director of Lake Champlain International, was recently presented with the GMP-Zetterstrom Environmental Award for his unwavering efforts to protect and improve Lake Champlain, according to a news release June 30. The award, named for famed osprey advocate Meeri Zetterstrom, comes with $2,500 to support LCI’s work.
“As with Meeri Zetterstrom, grit, a big voice, and a thick skin are key elements of James’ environmental advocacy,” said Steve Costello, a Green Mountain Power vice president who worked with Zetterstrom on osprey restoration, and presented the award. “Both made bettering the environment their life’s work, and neither was put off by tough challenges. They got energized by tackling what others might think was impossible.”
Zetterstrom, an elderly widow when she set out to restore endangered ospreys to Vermont in the late 80s, was a feisty visionary who took her fight to politicians, fishermen, utility executives and community leaders to build support for her effort. She exposed the danger of venturing too close to osprey nests by shooting video and sending it to local TV stations, educated schoolchildren, and ultimately inspired an effort that resulted in ospreys’ removal from Vermont’s endangered species list.
Like Zetterstrom, Ehlers has been an environmental advocate for decades and has led LCI since 1999. He took LCI–little more than a Father’s Day fishing derby–and turned it into a broad, lake-focused environmental group with tens of thousands of supporters. The annual LCI derby has become one of the leading fishing derbies in the nation, while LCI’s focus has grown to include lake advocacy, education, cleanup and restoration.
LCI operates Lake Champlain’s first and only pollution-prevention boat, removing waste from recreational boats to reduce illegal dumping. Ehlers ensured continuation of the state’s lake trout and salmon restoration program by working with the Vermont governor’s office, the Great Lakes Fisheries Commission, commissioner of the Department of Fish & Wildlife, and Senator Patrick Leahy’s office. Similarly, he brought together landowners, lawmakers, scientists, and public stakeholders to effect stronger Clean Water Act rules for the benefit of Lake Champlain.
Ehlers has built a reputation as a tough, focused and effective leader. In 2010, Sen. Leahy lauded Ehlers’ efforts following a federal appropriation to help the lake. He said, “Your work at Lake Champlain International has been instrumental in securing the future of Lake Champlain. All of us who enjoy its waters every year are very grateful for your dedication. Many thanks for the work that you do.”
For his part, Ehlers said he is proud of his focus on lake improvement and environmental advocacy, and honored to receive the Zetterstrom Award, but more proud of all those behind the scenes who don’t get the credit they deserve for making his work possible—the volunteers, members, staff, and benefactors. “It’s an honor to receive this award from Green Mountain Power. And frankly, unexpected. I am just one member of a team—a team deeply committed to truly sustainable communities. We’ll use the funds received to support our important education programs at LCI and recruit more people to the team necessary to effect real change, the transition to an economy that protects water rather than the current one predicated on its pollution. We have made gains in recent years, but it’s not enough. Lake Champlain is more than a place to recreate. The lake sustains our cities with drinking water and supports habitat essential to our state’s unique environment,” Ehlers said. “Meeri had a vision and saw it to completion, and Vermont is better for it. Like Meeri and so many others out there, we must continue the hard work ahead to reverse the effects of centuries of pollution in Lake Champlain. This will take time, but there are important steps we can take now so that future generations will have the benefit of this critical natural resource. As Cousteau said many years ago, and it is as valid now as it was then, there is no disconnecting the life cycle from the water cycle. If I can continue to remind people of this and motivate people to act on it, both our natural resources and our most precious resource, our children, will be better off. We are all at least 60 percent water, after all.”
The GMP-Zetterstrom Environmental Award, first presented in 2010 shortly after Zetterstrom’s death, was created to honor her legacy and recognize others who follow her example. Past award recipients include Sally Laughlin, who helped to restore three species of endangered birds; Michael Smith, the founder of Rutland’s Pine Hill Park; Margaret Fowle, who leads Vermont’s peregrine falcon restoration program; the Lake Champlain Committee; Kelly Stettner, who founded the Black River Action Team; and Roy Pilcher, co-founder of Rutland County Audubon.