Sustainable development: long-term benefit to the U.P. economy?

Michigan State Roundup

Published July 1, 1993  | July 1993 issue

With new state and federal legislation foreshadowing changes in the timber industry, and with mining dependent on volatile markets, a proposal to establish a sustainable development center at Michigan Technological University in Houghton may be particularly timely.

"Sustainable development is best defined in a United Nations report on the environment as 'allowing us to meet our own needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs,'" says Craig Waddell, assistant professor of humanities at Michigan Tech. Waddell is largely responsible for the proposed research and study center that would blend the goals of environmental advocates with business and economic development interests in the Upper Peninsula (U.P.).

The center would involve the business and industrial community and the larger public to work on a number of issues: eco-tourism, such as promoting cross-country skiing rather than snowmobiling; sustainable forest practices; and wilderness preservation, Waddell says.

But according to Dave Harmon of the U.P. Environmental Coalition, it is difficult to define sustainable development. The forest products industry, for example, might say their practices fit the definition, Harmon says, while environmental groups might disagree. In such a case, the center could fill the breach created by a sometimes huge communications gap, he adds.

The concept for a U.P. sustainable development center rose out of a coalition of environmental interests that halted plans for a pulp mill along the Lake Superior shoreline in 1989. The umbrella group, FOLK (Friends of Land of Keweenaw), issued a report in April 1990 calling for economic diversification and careful use of the resources on which the U.P. prides itself.

"If you're going to have a natural resource-based economy, you have to sustain those resources," says Stephen Albee, senior planner for the Western Upper Peninsula Planning and Development Region in Houghton. "With a natural resource-based economy, when you mess it up, you don't get anything," Albee adds.

"We're trying to find a middle ground and industry that's environmentally benign," says Michael Abbott, administrative manager in the finance division at Michigan Tech. Abbott says the proposed center would be a natural companion to other university programs, such as environmental engineering, biological sciences, forestry and wood technology.

But Houghton's Albee cautions that the success of sustainable development lies in fostering the demand for alternative products and businesses. "You need to create the environment that's business or user friendly."

Once funding is obtained, plans call for the center to employ four and begin full-time operation in 1994-95.

Kathy Cobb