By MICHAELA HALNON
Lake Champlain International executive director James Ehlers has quite a bit in common with the late Meeri Zetterstrom, an environmental advocate often described by friends as “strong willed.”
“Everyone I work with knows that I can be pretty demanding sometimes,” Ehlers said to a crowd at Bayside Park in Colchester last week. “And that’s because I need everybody’s help.”
It’s one of the qualities that make him the perfect recipient of Green Mountain Power’s Zetterstrom Environmental Award, said Steve Costello, GMP vice president of customer care.
“James has been working to protect Vermont’s environment and this amazing body of water for more than two decades,” Costello said.
Ehlers accepted the award last Thursday with the lake he’s worked so hard to protect as his backdrop.
At the helm of LCI since 1999, Ehlers has transformed an organization that offered little more than a fishing derby into an environmental protection force, Costello said.
LCI continues to host popular fishing competitions but now also operates the only boat dedicated to pollution cleanup on Lake Champlain and hosts educational programs.
The organization has been praised by scores of Vermont politicians, including Sen. Patrick Leahy, who called Ehler’s work instrumental.
The GMP award was created in 2010, shortly after Zetterstrom’s death, as a way to recognize environmental leaders across the state.
Past recipients include wildlife advocate Sally Laughlin, Michael Smith, founder of Rutland’s Pine Hill Park; and Margaret Fowle, the leader of the state’s peregrine falcon restoration program.
Zetterstrom was a Finland native who worked tirelessly for years to save the state’s osprey population and is largely credited with bringing the bird off the endangered species list.
Costello was introduced to Zetterstrom’s fiery spirit during his first day on the job. She called GMP requesting the installation of osprey landing platforms on Lake Arrowhead in Milton, where she lived.
That sparked a friendship. Costello said he soon thought of Zetterstrom as a grandmother-figure.
“Meeri was a very special person,” Costello said. “She had no qualms about calling the governor or the head of Fish and Wildlife.”
That determination is an inspiration to Ehlers.
“I hope this award helps me lead a team to the same success Meeri had years ago,” Ehlers said. “And I hope I can hold up her fine reputation.”
Ehlers credits folks working behind the scenes for LCI’s accomplishments but maintains there is still work to be done.
“I’d like to think that there would be a day when we no longer need organizations that are defending our home against other interests,” Ehlers said. “All of our interests are, in my view at least, mutual, shared interests.”
The award, given annually, comes with $2,500 intended to support LCI’s continuing efforts.