A conversation with watershed activist David Brooks on the long-term work of environmental stewardship

“I like biologists. They do cool things. They go to cool places, and I’ll hang around them. I’ll fix their stuff. I’ll carry their stuff. I’m a good pack animal.” 

This is how David Brooks, a longtime electrical engineer who was born and raised in Detroit and professes to having disliked his high school biology teacher, ended up doing so much biology in his lifetime. 

And extra hands on deck couldn’t have come at a better time. In his many years working alongside scientists, Brooks has racked up an impressive 20 Earthwatch projects in his resume, doing everything from banding birds, taking blood samples from eagle chicks, and trapping flying squirrels from places as far afield as Costa Rica and Prince of Wales Island to locales as local as our very own Great Lakes watershed. 

“I love the Great Lakes,” he tells me. “It’s a really fascinating habitat. Visible from space, you know? All that.”

This year, Brooks turned 80 years old. Born in Detroit in 1941, he has witnessed many changes in his beloved Great Lakes over the years. He recounts his perspective on the St. Lawrence Seaway (a series of canals that allow oceangoing vessels to travel from the Atlantic Ocean to the Great Lakes) opening. A senior in high school at the time, Brooks recalls watching a submarine and destroyer that the Navy had sent circle around the Detroit River to demonstrate the seaway’s efficacy. “Back in ‘59, for a destroyer and a submarine to be in the Detroit River was dramatic,” he emphasizes. 

David Brooks at the Detroit International Wildlife Refuge.

He even remembers watching the Queen of England’s yacht pass through the area. “Now the parade of Salties, which are what people on the Great Lakes call oceangoing vessels, is routine,” he says.

From his lifelong position on the Detroit River, Brooks has witnessed the Great Lakes watershed bounce wildly between health, decline, recovery, and back again. As a young man, he remembers “watching the blast furnace works, and the dumping of the steel works, and molten metal dumping all over the place. It was the fourth of July every day of the year on the Detroit River.” 

Brooks sits in front of the John D. Dingell Visitor Center of the Detroit International Wildlife Refuge, Humbug Marsh at his back. It’s difficult to not notice the positive effects that policy and activism have made in the long term on the preservation of the Detroit River and its wildlife. The refuge here preserves the last non-industrial parts of the Detroit River. 

For Brooks, a useful barometer of Great Lakes watershed health has been analyzing animal populations and reproduction patterns. Brooks waves beyond the island he is sitting in front of and tells me, “On the other side of that island, there’s an eagle’s nest. So eagles are coming back.” Brooks helped to take blood and feather samples from eagle chicks to measure organic and heavy metal toxins. Even though the eagle population on the Detroit River has significantly recovered, we’re not quite out of the woods yet. 

“The eagles that live on the Great Lakes are still accumulating the biggest toxin load in their bodies. The eagles that live on the inland lakes of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota are accumulating a less toxic load and so are reproductively more successful,” he explains–citing his work with an Earthwatch project as his education in this subject. 

This is typical of Brooks’ stories. They insist that we celebrate and tell stories about improvements while also making room for an ongoing commitment to restoration and awareness. 

Brooks’s stories also highlight the value in looking at the Detroit River and the larger Great Lakes watershed from an ecological standpoint. The eagles connect to the fish of the Great Lakes, another animal population that Brooks has dealt extensively with in his time on the Detroit River. He tells me that he has seen an increase in fishing activity on the river in the last few years. 

“And that’s cool,” he concedes. “You know, I’m maybe a little suspicious of eating those fish because I was working for a U of M scientist taking microplastics samples, and we were virtually sampling at the outlets of sewage treatment plants, and we’re sampling at the outlet of the Detroit sewage treatment plant, and these guys are fishing, you know, right there.” 

As a longtime vegetarian and recent vegan convert, Brooks laughs that he doesn’t really need to worry about all that since he doesn’t eat fish, but I hear his point. Pollutants find their ways into any animal that is a part of the food chain, which means both people and eagles, and that has huge implications for both parties. 

For eagles, this cycle impacts their reproductive success, thereby reducing eagle populations down the line. “The eagles that eat fish build up a toxin load. Eagles don’t start breeding until they’re about five years old, and as any new parents, they’re not all that good at it to start with, so their fledgeling success goes up, and it goes up for about the first five years, so they’re putting out maybe two chicks a year, and then the toxin load starts hitting, and they’re breeding success declines for the next ten years, and so that’s not good.”

But on matters like this, too, Brooks has seen encouraging policy and behavioral changes on the part of people in his lifetime that have positively affected wildlife populations. “A friend of mine is a fish biologist with one federal agency or another, and he basically works on the Detroit River, and he’s seen fish spawning, possibly Sturgeon–possibly Muskie–that hadn’t been here for thirty years, so the pollution control, the Clean Water Act, the improved sewage treatment, are all helping.”

We talk a bit about how the Cuyahoga and Rogue River literally had to burn for the people in power to make change–a seemingly contradictory phenomenon that feels frighteningly apt in the midst of the flames that burst out on the ocean in the Gulf of Mexico this summer due to a gas leak from a ruptured pipeline. “That was kind of the low point, and so we said “Okay, gotta clean up our act.”’

Nevertheless, as someone who often worries about the lack of response to our current environmental crisis, hearing stories about significant improvements and action in response to these issues in the past forces me to think more generously and deeply about what local stories of change get lost in the rushing river of global environmental crisis. 

There is more work to be done on the Detroit River and in the larger Great Lakes system yet. Invasive species such as Alewives, Round Gobies, Zebra Mussels, Lamprey Eels, and Quagga Mussels threaten native populations. 

Brooks recalls going out on a boat with a team of scientists in the cold of January to capture video of deepwater sculpins spawning. “We had an underwater vehicle down 300 feet and all we saw were round gobies,” he said. Round gobies are invasive species. 

The image is striking. How deep must we go to restore the Great Lakes to equilibrium? How deep must we go to see what the waters need–what they could be? 

“The Great Lakes are just this biological basket case oscillating back and forth from one thing to another, and no one can predict,” Brooks laughs. While it’s true that no one can predict what the Great Lakes will proffer next, we can certainly learn from the stories that Brooks and others offer about how we might act.

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