Built the World’s First Ecosystem Endowment

The Beginning: Governors Come Together to Build a Future for the Lakes

“They define us.”

- Jim Blanchard, Former Michigan Governor

Former Michigan Governor Jim Blanchard’s simple statement about the Great Lakes captures the complex human/water relationship that has existed for millennia. These words describe why the Great Lakes are vital to the people who live here. The governors who founded the Great Lakes Protection Fund knew that the success of the region would require a commitment to ecosystem health. That’s why they created the world’s first ecosystem endowment.

The Fund’s mission is to identify, demonstrate, and promote regional action to enhance the health of the Great Lakes ecosystem.

The founding governors in 1989 (from left to right)—Governors Jim Thompson (IL), Bob Casey (PA), Dick Celeste (OH), Tommy Thompson (WI), Rudy Perpich (MN), and Jim Blanchard (MI). Not pictured—Mario Cuomo (NY).

The Twentieth Century was rough on the Great Lakes, as the region’s economic prosperity took a toll on the ecosystem. By the 1980s, bipartisan leadership emerged from the surrounding states to take action for a sustainable Great Lakes future. 

“Within a week of the time that I was elected… I was visited by a former governor of Michigan, Bill Milliken, who said ‘Let’s form the Council of Great Lakes Governors because the Great Lakes are such a compelling issue, they ought to be advanced, protected with one voice.’”

- Tony Earl, Former Wisconsin Governor

Former Wisconsin Governor Tony Earl remembered that moment in 1983 as the spark that led to the formation of the Great Lakes Protection Fund. The longest serving Republican governor of Michigan reached out to the newly elected Democratic governor of Wisconsin, because he knew that the future of the Great Lakes had to transcend politics and state boundaries. 

The governors worked together to create a resource to drive regional action to protect the lakes. In 1989, the Great Lakes Protection Fund was endowed with $81 million from seven Great Lakes states. 

Shown Left to Right—Governors Jim Thompson (IL), Richard Celeste (OH), Tony Earl (WI), and Jim Blanchard (MI)

Solutions for the Lakes
Since that initial investment, the Fund has invested $85 million in an innovation portfolio to confront new challenges and anticipate emerging issues for the Great Lakes. The Fund’s ability to build collaborative teams, launch high-impact solutions, and take intelligent risks has contributed to significant improvements in Great Lakes health.

“It’s like seed venture capital, actually, is basically what it is. And they have a very enlightened board and they’re very concerned about making sure that the money that they invest is relevant to the real issues that are confronting the lake.”

- George Voinovich, Former Ohio Governor

The late Ohio Governor George Voinovich emphasized that the Fund’s success relies on supporting new ideas that have promise and allowing environmental entrepreneurs to test and get their ideas into the marketplace. A successful strategy impacts the entire basin, and a portfolio of such projects will ensure we will have clean water at the right place, at the right time, and in the right amount.

“I am proud of the Fund and its thirty-year legacy of launching innovative solutions that improve the health of the Great Lakes. I think we all would be proud to say we did something significant to improve the environment for thirty years. As its chair, I am committed to thirty more years of impact.”

- Tim Walz, Minnesota Governor

Chair of the Fund in 2019, Minnesota Governor Tim Walz takes pride in building on the work of the other member governors—40 since the Fund’s creation—to accelerate the restoration of the Great Lakes. Their leadership ensures that healthy lakes drive a robust regional economy and that a strong economy will benefit the lakes.

Since the initial public investment of $81 million, the Great Lakes Protection Fund has:

The Fund is the world’s first ecosystem endowment. It builds collaborative teams to launch high-impact solutions that protect and restore the physical, chemical, and biological integrity of the waters of the Great Lakes ecosystem. And it’s just getting started.

Video: Ravenswood Media

Start a Conversation
At the Fund, our goal is to build something—together—that delivers impact. You have an idea and a strategy in mind and we have a basin-wide perspective and experience launching new initiatives. We strongly encourage you to contact us to discuss an idea, whether fully formed or not, as a first step.

Email us at startaconversation@glpf.org