Celebrating a great former governor of Michigan
If Michigan has ever had an environmental governor, it was William G. Milliken, Traverse City’s son, who turns 95 on March 26.
The woods and waters of the Traverse City area, Milliken said, and particularly summer days at a family cottage near Acme, bonded him to nature in his childhood. That embedded appreciation carried forward into his political career.
When Milliken became governor in January 1969, the public was clamoring for environmental action. He delivered.
In a January 1970 special message to the Legislature, he said, “The preservation of our environment is the critical issue of the Seventies.” The message contained a 20-point program, including proposals that ultimately became a shorelands protection act and a natural rivers conservation law.
An even bigger achievement that year was the passage, with Milliken’s support, of the Michigan Environmental Protection Act, or MEPA. Granting any citizen standing to sue for the protection of natural resources and the public trust in these resources from pollution, impairment, or destruction, the law had national significance and was imitated in many states.
In 1976, he defied Amway Corp. co-founder and major Republican Party donor Jay Van Andel by backing a tough limit on phosphorus in laundry detergent, a product manufactured by the company. Reduction of the nutrient almost immediately shrank algal blooms in Michigan waters.
The same year, the legislature deadlocked on a proposal to attach a deposit to some beverage containers. Convinced the law would reduce litter and promote recycling, Milliken joined forces with the Michigan United Conservation Clubs to put the proposed container deposit law on the 1976 ballot. Voters approved the law by a roughly 2-to-1 margin. It is still considered the most successful law of its kind in the nation.
Milliken signed over a dozen major environmental bills into law, many of them evolving from his proposals: wetlands conservation, hazardous waste management, inland lakes and streams protection, and what is now the state Natural Resources Trust Fund, a public land acquisition and protection program capitalized by proceeds from oil and gas drilling on state lands. He left office on January 1, 1983 after almost 14 years in office, the longest tenure of any Michigan governor.
In 2011, Milliken said Michigan citizens must think of water “as something sacred, not to be treated as a commodity for barter and trade. If we Michiganders observe this principle in public policy and private actions, there will be no limit to the prosperity of our state. Water will then continue to define Michigan, enrich us in ways that include but reach far beyond dollar values, and be our legacy to generations to come. It is no wonder that our Supreme Court once declared that our streams, lakes, and Great Lakes are held in a ‘high, solemn and perpetual trust.’”
Happy Birthday, Governor Milliken.