Local environmental activist takes national role in restoring Great Lakes

Growing up a few blocks from Lake Michigan, Cameron Davis recalls the lake as an integral part of his life.

“The Great Lakes are part of my genetic makeup,” he says.

His father would pick up litter along Lake Michigan when most people would walk by it, and Davis says that left a lasting impression.

Years later, Davis is taking on a pivotal role in restoring the Great Lakes.

President Barack Obama recently appointed the local environmentalist leader as a special advisor to the EPA, to help restore the Great Lakes.

“This appointment signals that the Great Lakes are a national priority and that citizens play an important role – probably the most important role – in ensuring the Great Lakes are healthy and sustainable for the next generation,” says Davis.

In 1986, Davis first started volunteering with what is now known as the Alliance for the Great Lakes. He worked with other locals, cleaning-up beaches and ultimately working to protect Lake Michigan.  He says his biggest accomplishment is starting the adopt-a-beach program. In fact, it was at a beach-clean up in 1998 when Davis first met President Obama.
Davis is proud to say that the adopt-a-beach program is strong, with 7,000 volunteers, and it has won multiple awards.

Still, Davis says fighting for the lakes hasn’t been easy, and misconceptions about the lakes have been his biggest obstacle.

“The public perception is that the Great Lakes are infinite and can absorb everything we throw at them,” he says. However, “They look big but they’re incredibly fragile.”

That’s exactly what he plans to teach his three year-old son, and hopes his son will leave the lakes better than how he found them.

Dave Ullrich, executive director of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative, has worked closely with Davis and encouraged him to pursue a career in environmental law. 

“Cam is a real man of action -- he makes things happen and that is desperately needed on the Great Lakes,” says Ullrich.

Ullrich says Davis was instrumental in numerous initiatives that fought to restore the Great Lakes. One in particular was the Great Lakes toxins reduction initiative, which sought to make water quality standards more uniform across the Great Lakes.

In addition, Ullrich says, Davis played a critical role in helping to pass the Legacy Act, which called for more funding to clean up the lakes. Ullrich says Davis has also been involved with key litigation that fought for more protection for the Great Lakes.

“He’s the right person in the right place at the right time,” says Ullrich. 

But Council of Great Lakes Industry President George Kuper differs with Davis on key issues.

Kuper says he and Davis come from two different schools of thought and at times have exchanged “warm words.” For example, the two men have disagreed on whether dumping of any kind should occur in the lakes. While Davis may be working to ensure there’s no dumping, Kuper says this just isn’t practical.

The two work constructively together and ultimately respect one another, Kuper says.

“I think Cam is the first occupant of the job and will form it into something that will be successful, because Cam knows how to be successful in certain ways,” says Kuper.

Davis says he will always fight for the protection of the lakes.

“I’m very honored and I hope I can give back to the Great Lakes as a way of saying thank you,” says Davis.