Great Lakes Islands Alliance aims to advocate for residents across the islands

From its popular bar scene to pristine nature areas to family-friendly attractions, South Bass Island and its Village of Put-in-Bay are Lake Erie summer hot spots. 

Most of South Bass Island’s roads are paved and easily accessible to golf carts, the most popular way to get around there, and cars.

Its neighbor to the northeast, Pelee Island in Lake Erie's Canadian waters, is larger and much more agricultural, with vineyards for the Pelee Island Winery covering two-thirds of the island. It has several corduroy and dirt roads. 

Up North on Lake Huron, Mackinac Island in Michigan is a major tourist destination known for its grand hotel, historic fort and horse-drawn carriages. No cars are allowed on the island, so islanders and visitors get around by walking, bicycling or carriage in the warmer months and snowmobiling in the winter.

To the East on Lake Ontario, Amherst Island in Canada is mostly agricultural, with its sheep and wool farm, dairy farm and other agricultural pursuits. A couple galleries showcase the island's connection to the local art community. 

Each of these islands are very different. And they are just a handful of the 35,000 islands on the Great Lakes. 

Yet they all face comparable challenges, from health care to conservation, and have many similarities. To share ideas, problem-solve and create a communication network of residents across the islands, the Great Lakes Islands Alliance formed in 2017.

The alliance comprises 20 populated islands in the United States and Canada across the Great Lakes.

“A lot of times, you get kind of siloed or you get into a narrow focus, and you do things the same way all the time,” says Peter Huston, Great Lakes Islands Alliance project manager and Put-in-Bay resident. “To me, it was a great opportunity to be able to network with other islands. We facilitate communication. We try to find ways to get people from different islands to share accomplishments and problems.”

Put-in-Bay is a member of Monarch City USA. (Photo/Joe Shorthouse)
The idea for the alliance started with a couple of Michigan government officials who saw how a similar alliance in Maine, the Island Institute in Rockland, benefitted residents of Maine’s islands. They began contacting island community members across the Great Lakes to see if an international organization might be of interest to them. 

The Great Lakes alliance started with its first islands summit in 2017 on Michigan’s Beaver Island in Lake Michigan. Organizers hoped to have at least 30 people attend and were thrilled when 75 people from 13 different islands showed up, said Matt Preisser, Great Lakes Islands Alliance Coordinator. 

“Obviously, legal organizations don’t form overnight,” Preisser says. “We wanted to do it thoughtfully and build a case. It was really fascinating for me, as a mainlander, to be invited in and see islanders talking to islanders. It was really fascinating to me that nothing had really brought them together before.”

Today, the alliance has annual summits (with the exception of 2020 and 2021 due to the pandemic) and regular Zoom meetings to share ideas and meet challenges. 

Huston, who was head of the Put-in-Bay Chamber of Commerce when the alliance formed and has been involved since its inception, became its project manager in 2021. 

“I get to try to visit a lot of the different islands and meet people there and talk to them about their major issues and things they're really proud of,” he says.

A partnership between several agencies makes the alliance possible.

Huston’s position is funded by a grant from the C.S. Mott Foundation and run through the Stewardship Network, an organization based in Ann Arbor that connects nature and conservation organizations to help them work together. Although Preisser is lake coordinator for the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy, his role as islands alliance coordinator is funded through a federal grant from the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative

The rest of the alliance’s work is done through volunteers, including webmaster Michael Gora of Middle Bass Island.

“Our role is to facilitate and connect, and from there, whatever each island wants to do with it is up to them,” Preisser says. “We are not interested in going in and telling island communities who they are and what they should be. We are here to serve island communities. “

Perry's Victory and International Peace Memorial commemorates the Battle of Lake Erie that took place near Ohio's South Bass Island. (Photo/Courtesy of Peter Huston)
Common Challenges

For most islands, reliable internet, consistent access to health care, affordable housing, schools, and conservation and environmental issues top the list of challenges, Huston and Preisser say. 

“It's important because we want to be able to promote the idea of sustainable communities on these islands,” Huston says. “We want them to be able to make a living, have their kids be in school, and have access to health care.”

Some islands have clinics where doctors or nurses are on-site once or twice a week.

For those with chronic medical issues, it can be difficult to see a doctor regularly. Although ferries to the islands run through much of the year, travel by plane is usually required in the winter. That tends to be expensive and cost-prohibitive, he notes. 

Internet access is a universal issue for the islands. On Amherst Island, for example, most residents have internet access by subscribing to a provider, but it is expensive, he says. On others, residents rely on public internet at libraries and restaurants.  

“There are still islands where kids go sit in their car outside the town hall or library doing their homework,” Huston says. “It's cost-prohibitive for some islands to have a big provider come over and wire them up.”

On islands like South Bass and Mackinac, affordable housing is difficult to find. 

“There are limited houses and property for sale,” Huston says. “Ones in the affordable range are bought up by people who want to turn them into an Airbnb or use them as bunkhouses for employees. Then they sit there for the winter, so the chance of a family to be able to have year-round housing gets snapped away.” 
GLIA members are welcomed to Put-in-Bay. (Photo/Matt Preisser)
Sharing ideas leads to successes

Although they haven't been able to solve every challenge, working together has led to some successes. 

“The key to this whole process is thinking of me as like a telephone switchboard,” Huston says. “I'm connecting person A from island A to person B on another island. Sometimes we get together, and we have Zoom calls. Sometimes they're able to trade resources and experts on how to be able to do things.”

For example, Mackinac Island has had success with an affordable housing partnership between its city and community foundation. Residents can lease a piece of property to eventually own it and build a house there. So far, 12 houses have been built, and 12 more are in progress, Huston says. 

“That idea has really caught on,” he says. “Madeline Island and Beaver Island are working on similar programs to be able to provide affordable housing for their workers.”

Collaboration on environmental issues has been helpful from island to island. Many are preserving and creating spaces for migratory birds and butterflies and share plans and suggestions based on what they have seen with their own projects.
“One of the things that we have going on in all of the islands are different types of invasive species,” he says, noting that the invasive plant garlic mustard is a problem on South Bass Island. “There's been a lot of sharing of data about what can be done. Beaver and Madeline islands have been able to nearly eradicate some of their invasives.”

Bringing people together

The key to success is continuing to bring islanders together, whether it's virtually or in person. 

One of the alliance's first accomplishments was the Great Lakes Islands Basketball Tournament, which included kids from South Bass Island, Mackinac Island, Beaver Island on Lake Michigan in Michigan, Madeline Island on Lake Superior in Wisconsin and others. The kids visited the schools on other islands and played against the kids there. 

Throughout the tournament, the kids, parents and islanders spent time together and created connections. 

“It was a super success,” Huston says. “These kids have grown up on islands, and they don't really have a strong sense of other islands and people having similar life experiences to them. It helped to get the parents and the people on the various islands charged up to be involved.”

Last October, about 90 alliance members traveled to South Bass Island for a summit that included visits to Put-in-Bay, Middle Bass Island, Kelleys Island and Pelee Island. 

The alliance also facilitates a monthly Zoom meeting. Huston, a filmmaker, also creates videos about the islands he visits to help raise awareness for each community. 

“While our area that we are involved in goes from way up north all the way from (Lake) Superior all the way down to (Lake) Ontario, there is a great synergy between the people that we've met and a wonderful welcoming,” Huston says. “It's really been an amazing experience.”