A History of Environmental Action

A little more than a year ago, a 4-3 decision by the Michigan Supreme Court quietly struck down a generation-old piece of legislation, the Michigan Environmental Protection Act, taking away the legal basis for the state’s citizens to use the court system to protect the ecology of their local communities.

“We no longer have the right to sue as an environmental organization,” explains Rachel Hood, executive director of the West Michigan Environmental Action Council, which will today celebrate its 40th anniversary in a gala event at the Grand Rapids Art Museum.

“You, as a citizen, no longer have the right to sue to protect your environment. We had written one of the strongest pieces of legislature ever to come across a legislators’ docket — it was the model for laws across the country — and now here we are in the midst of the largest environmental crisis in history and our rights are being torn apart.”

The world has changed dramatically since 1968, when local housewife Joan Wolfe brought together a diverse group of citizens and community interests under the WMEAC banner: There are today plenty of environmental groups here and statewide. Many of its onetime villains are “going green.” And Hood spends more of her time on the door stops of West Michigan’s urban neighborhoods than on those of chemical companies and legislators.

But in the midst of the greatest groundswell of environmental awareness since the original Earth Day, the council is suddenly faced with the same issue it rallied a state around four decades ago.

The recent court case, Nestle v. Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation, which sought to prevent Nestle from draining Michigan streams for bottled water, is not so different from some of the council’s earliest actions, including its landmark suit to ban the pesticide DDT, efforts to prevent plutonium recycling in West Michigan or oil exploration in northern Michigan. Likewise, the situation isn’t all that different from the one the council encountered when it was initially formed, when Wolfe and her charter members commissioned an environmental law professor at the University of Michigan to write the bill that would become MEPA.

“The legislators got quite scared of environmentalists and citizen action when the Michigan Environmental Protection Act was passed,” says Wolfe, now retired to Frankfort, Mich., near Traverse City, where she and Hood recently discussed the issue during a rally for the Great Lakes Compact. “There wasn’t quite the same need for that type action. Now there is.”

“We’re now in a position where so many things have been horse-traded and there are so many different interests in play,” adds Hood. “WMEAC stands uniquely able to keep an initiative pure from any other legislation or issues.”

Deputizing the masses
So the story begins in 1969 with a lawsuit filed in the Western District of Michigan, seated in Grand Rapids, intended to prevent the use of DDT. As the founding members of the council looked on, the court threw their case out, ruling that everyday citizens did not have the legal standing to file suit on environmental issues.

“The prevailing philosophy at the time was leave it to the experts,” recalls Peter Steketee, a local environmental attorney that later represented the organization on a number of environmental suits. “The ordinary citizen didn’t have standing or wasn’t supposed to be participating in these environmental decisions. We’re supposed to assign responsibility to an administrative agency and let them take care of it. But quite frankly they were doing a pretty bad job.”

So in the wake of another, larger and eventually successful DDT lawsuit filed jointly with the State of New York, the National Audubon Society and the Environmental Defense Fund against the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the council devised the Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act, the precursor to House Bill 3055 and MEPA.

Although there were powerful challenges from the industrial sector, they were met by an overwhelming support for the bill from citizens across the state, particularly among outdoorsmen, student activists and in Ann Arbor and Grand Rapids. The end result, according to Dave Dempsey, author of Ruin and Recovery: Michigan’s Rise as a Conservation Leader, was that "any citizen willing to go to court was deputized as a defender of the environment."

Waking up the world
Now the story really begins in 1960 with a young dentist and his wife, Willard and Joan Wolfe, relocating from the Detroit area to West Michigan. Like many of the region’s transplants, the Wolfes had been attracted to its countless outdoor opportunities, a practical wilderness compared to urban centers such as Detroit or Chicago.

Shortly after their arrival, Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, effectively launching the modern environmental movement. (In tonight’s anniversary celebration, actress Kaiulani Lee will portray Carson in a special one-woman show, “A Sense of Woman.”). In the book, Carson wrote how uncontrolled pesticide use, particularly DDT, was responsible for the mass deaths of animals and birds, especially the bald eagle, which teetered on extinction. Wolfe read the book, and immediately recalled how her children’s pet frog had mysteriously died a few years before. She had been feeding it earthworms.

“It was obviously pesticide poisoning,” she says. “Silent Spring turned me into an environmentalist.”

The Wolfes, who had earlier decided that Joan would serve as a fulltime volunteer, both became actively involved with the fledgling environmental movement, then a collection of outdoor and nature organizations such as the Audubon Society and Trout Unlimited.

“We both had realized that all of these organizations cared about the environment, but they were all active on different fronts, nothing was getting done, so it was our idea that there should be an environmental organization that a lot of different organizations could join and there could be cooperative work,” says Wolfe.

Her first act was to convene a forum on environmental issues at Fountain Street Church, where she floated the idea of uniting the region’s various stakeholders into some type of united environmental body. It took two years, but she was eventually introduced to John Hunting, a Steelcase heir and today chairman of the Dyers-Ives Foundation, who agreed to pay for a dinner that would put all these groups in the same room.

From that meeting, 40 West Michigan stakeholders — colleges, unions, the chambers of commerce, the Grand Rapids PTA, religious institutions, the League of Women Voters and many more — pledged their support. Within a year the council had been chosen as the Heartland’s representative in the suit against DDT and authored MEPA.

The age of sustainability
When Joan Wolfe was appointed by then Gov. Bill Milliken to a state environmental post, Roger Conner, a graduate of U-M’s vaunted environmental law program, took over the reigns of the council.

While Wolfe was deliberately low key, conscious to never run astray of the council’s diverse stakeholders and the region’s conservative base, Conner distinguished himself as a radical.

Under Conner, the council was the state’s most aggressive source of environmental litigation and lobbying. It successfully attacked Kent County’s plans to make the East Beltline a five-lane highway, state landfill regulations, a controversial plan to pilot a plutonium recycling plant locally, forwarded the bottle recycling bill and filed an epic lawsuit to prevent oil exploration in the Pigeon River Forest, commemorated in 2003 as the “Pigeon River Opera” at the Petoskey Theatre Festival.

“We were involved in everything. We were really all there was outside of the Detroit area,” says Conner, today a professor at Vanderbilt University. “I think, especially with Pigeon River, we were stretching our natural base, and in retrospect it was the first thing we had done where there wasn’t a volunteer component.”

Conner was followed by the Harvard-trained Ken Sikkema, then by his successor, Frank Ruswick, who brought a new direction for the organization with a stronger emphasis on lobbying and professional activity. Both later found careers in Lansing. WMEAC then led the formation of the Michigan Environmental Council and stood down as a statewide organization.

The council had mixed success through this period. It was even on the brink of dissolving before Tom Leonard, a veteran of social justice nonprofits, took over as executive director. He helped install the council as an incubator of sorts for new programs, rolling out such popular offerings as the West Michigan Sustainable Business ForumRain Gardens of West Michigan, and Local First. It was the first local group to organize around what would become critical issues in the years to come — mass transit, sustainable agriculture, urban sprawl, energy efficiency and water conservation and protection.

“I think WMEAC is not given enough credit for pioneering those ideas when they were not popular,” says Leonard. “Now a lot of people are standing up, but that wasn’t the case in the mid-90s and earlier, when there actualy was a lot of animosity toward environmentalism.”

And with the West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum, spearheaded by WMEAC board member Bill Stough, the council was on very unfamiliar ground. Suddenly, big business was no longer the enemy.

"At that time anyone that had an environmental label and anyone who had an industry label wouldn’t speak to each other," Stough says. "There was a lot of conflict between those communities and I proposed that we find a new approach, that we start working on issues of common concern."
The ecology of a region
Today, WMEAC has adopted a model that incorporates the best of both eras, a combination of grassroots activism, advocacy and local programs.

“We’re looking for a foot in both worlds,” says Hood. “When you talk to kids today, they want to advocate by doing, to think globally and act locally. It’s ‘I made the change, why can’t you?’”

So the council keeps an eye to larger concerns such as the Great Lakes Compact and MEPA, for which a ballot issue maybe in the works, and its other eye centered on issues like Indian Mill Creek. Part of the lower Grand River watershed, the creek crosses through the GrandWalk industrial community, Alpine Avenue, Richmond Park and a long stretch of middle density housing on the border of Grand Rapids and Walker. The council has partnered with an emerging group, The Friends of Indian Mill Creek, to create opportunities for low impact development projects — building rain gardens, educating the industrial community, working with residents on a door-to-door basis and the neighboring Harrison Park School — all with the aim of establishing a connection between the neighborhood and its watershed.

“Today there needs to be more of a human ecology,” says Hood. “You’ve got this environment, now how does it impact you and how do you impact it?”

Daniel Schoonmaker is managing editor of Rapid Growth.


The current home of WMEAC on Lake Drive - East Hills (photo by Brian Kelly)

Scrap book images (courtesy of WMEAC)

Tom Leonard (courtesy of WMEAC)

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