By Dave Dempsey
When a book of history you’ve written becomes history itself, this not only makes you feel old, but also gives you a chance, in hindsight, to see how accurate it is.
Twenty years ago, in 2001, the University of Michigan Press published Ruin and Recovery: Michigan’s Rise as a Conservation Leader. It was a book I’d long wanted to write. Based on 20 prior years of learning the environmental history of Michigan on the job, I attempted to put in perspective the good and bad in the state’s management of its natural resources.
Despite the catastrophes marking Michigan’s environmental history, I intended the book to capture a stirring story of citizen action to rebuild and protect the air, water, forests, fish and wildlife–and human health–since Michigan became a state in 1837. I was fortunate that the book received a generally warm welcome.
But now it’s time to look back. Although I’m pleased with much of Ruin and Recovery, I also see its flaws. They’re considerable. Here are a few; the book was:
- Intended to cover Michigan’s environmental history as a state, but in doing so it said virtually nothing about the people who lived here for approximately 10,000 years before that. How did they live in relation to the landscape and waterscape? How did their ways and practices affect these peninsulas?
- At 368 pages, too long for many readers.
- Simplistic in its faith that Michigan would become a conservation leader among the states again.
This faith was founded on the finding that Michigan had lived through several cycles of destruction and healing. First, rapacious logging companies stripped Michigan of its white pine, and market hunting and fishing devoured wildlife and aquatic life.
Then citizens organized and successfully pressured state legislators to create forest reserves and commit to a plan of sustainable harvest. They also compelled legislators to enact legislation establishing harvesting seasons and rules.
Similarly, when pollution blackened the sky and poisoned the water, it was citizens who clamored for the cleanup laws that distinguished Michigan among the 50 states.
I projected that this would happen again as new challenges occurred, including urban sprawl, climate change, and new forms of air and water pollution.
So far, I’ve been wrong. Not because of lack of concern among Michigan’s residents, but because of a political culture resistant to–and designed to be resistant to–the wishes and forces of the public. And also because of social changes that limit the amount of volunteer and advocacy time available to the public.
Some readers have even joked darkly that the book should be renamed Ruin and Recovery and Ruin Again. I can’t go that far, or anywhere near it.
I still take heart from examples of Michigan’s past.
Charles Garfield, a Grand Rapids banker, for 20 years in the late 1800s and early 1900s advocated that the state create a public forest system to replace cutover, fire-charred acres of Northern Michigan. Today, the Department of Natural Resources manages 3.9 million acres of state forests.
Genevieve Gillette, a landscape architect, spent 50 years of her life from the 1920s as a volunteer champion of building Michigan’s state park system. Her work contributed to everything from Tahquamenon Falls State Park to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Today, there are 306,000 acres of state parks and recreation areas.
Joan Wolfe, a citizen advocate living in Belmont, organized and led a coalition of interests that overcame polluter resistance to win state legislative approval of the Michigan Environmental Protection Act (MEPA) in 1970. Today, MEPA stands tall as a landmark law empowering the public.
As Joan said in summarizing the work to enact MEPA, “To me the greatest lesson is: ‘None of us is as smart as all of us,’ and ’Nothing we do can be accomplished alone.’”
There is no time to fall back on cynicism. And there is no purpose in apathy. Michigan’s environmental challenges are too great. The impulse for environmental recovery in Michigan has always begun with its public. Today, it must again.
If it does, 20 years from now an environmental historian can write Ruin and Renewal: Michigan’s People Rise Again.
Since “Ruin and Recovery” was published, it has been a must-read for anyone seriously interested in conservation in Michigan. Your observations about the resistance built into our political system and your admonitions to avoid cynicism and apathy are spot-on. The fact is that there is still time for Michigan conservation, and there are some encouraging signs. The covid pandemic has awakened more people than ever to the importance of Michigan’s parks, trails and open spaces as places that provide refuge from the press of crowds, renewal for the body and respite for the weary soul. Nature is the best medicine for our culture’s ailments, and by providing us with a wonderful history of what led Michigan to the fore in conservation once upon a time, you have provided us with a road map to a brighter future, and the inspiration to help us get there. Thank you, Dave Dempsey!!