By Dave Dempsey
Those working on Michigan environmental issues at any time during the last 50 years have known exactly who the pioneering legal advocate for Michigan’s precious air, water, and land is: FLOW founder Jim Olson. As Jim’s 77th birthday approaches on February 26, it’s time to take stock of all that he’s accomplished in the service of current and future generations.
Jim became attached to the outdoors at an early age. His parents moved the family, including Jim’s two sisters and two brothers, to Traverse City. He recalls propelling a home-made raft with his brothers up and down the shore of the east arm of Grand Traverse Bay. “We grew up in and on the bay, felt its cold and warm temperatures, sensed its sweetwater smell, moods, its seasons and cycles…,” Jim recalled.
“We grew up in and on the bay, felt its cold and warm temperatures, sensed its sweetwater smell, moods, its seasons and cycles…,” Jim Olson recalled.
It was logical, then, that Jim would find a calling and a cause in defending the environment. After earning his law degree from the Detroit College of Law and clerking for a Michigan Supreme Court justice Thomas Brennan, Jim was impressed by a talk on the public trust given by University of Michigan Professor Joseph Sax, who authored the Michigan Environmental Protection Act (MEPA). He returned to school to study under Sax, earning a postgraduate Master of Law Degree from the University of Michigan Law School in Public Lands, Natural Resources and Environmental Law. Jim shared and advanced the Sax belief in the strength of the public trust doctrine as a tool in protecting the commons—particularly our rivers, inland lakes, and Great Lakes.
Jim has used his legal skill to protect citizens from exposure to toxic PBBs, protect public access to the Great Lakes shoreline, and prevent pollution of the legendary Au Sable River watershed. Dedicated to equal justice for all, Jim also was involved early on in litigation to protect indigenous treaty fishing rights.
Challenging Nestlé’s Groundwater Grab & Enbridge’s Line 5
In perhaps his most famous case to date, Jim worked for the better part of a decade with Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation (MCWC) to challenge state approval of a major groundwater withdrawal by Nestlé. Jim and MCWC successfully limited Nestlé’s water-bottling grab.
“Jim has worked tirelessly to defend water, the public trust doctrine, and the right to clean, affordable water for all. He has fought against all forms of privatization of water as well,” said Peggy Case, board president of MCWC. “As an attorney, he has given countless hours of his time to these efforts and has also donated many hours of pro bono work to those working at the grassroots level on these issues…. He will always be there lending a voice to the work and showing support for those who will try to fill his shoes.”
“Jim has worked tirelessly to defend water, the public trust doctrine, and the right to clean, affordable water for all. He has fought against all forms of privatization of water as well,” said Peggy Case, board president of MCWC.
A major milestone in Jim’s career was Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s revocation and termination of the Enbridge Line 5 pipeline easement across the Straits of Mackinac. Citing the public trust doctrine, Gov. Whitmer determined that Enbridge had violated the easement terms. Although it’s being contested in the courts, the state’s action has the potential to sweep across the nation as a model for protecting the public’s natural resources.
Upholding the Public Trust & the MEPA
Along with Maude Barlow, then with the Council of Canadians, Jim introduced the six members of the International Joint Commission (IJC) to the public trust doctrine. As a result, the IJC endorsed the doctrine as part of a strategy for cleanup of Lake Erie and preventing diversion and export of Great Lakes waters.
Lana Pollack was U.S. Section Chair of the IJC at the time. She describes Jim as “a visionary who sees the world as it should be and then goes to work to make it happen. Fortunately, he has the smarts, credibility, and determination to move environmental protections towards real world success.”
Lana Pollack describes Jim as “a visionary who sees the world as it should be and then goes to work to make it happen.”
Mike Dettmer, Jim’s law partner in the 1970s, points out that Jim brought one of the first MEPA cases in Traverse City, representing citizens in an effort to protect the viewshed and access to lands east of the mouth of the Boardman River from development. As a result of the litigation, a portion of that land remains undeveloped today.
Dettmer calls Jim, “Michigan’s environmental lawyer and guardian from the beginning. My having grown up on the East Side of Detroit, the environment was not the first thing on my mind. He taught me, he taught many judges and the public the importance of environmental protection.”
Mike Dettmer calls Jim, “Michigan’s environmental lawyer and guardian from the beginning.”
Skip Pruss, a former chair of FLOW’s board and a longtime environmental litigator for the State of Michigan, says Jim’s accomplishments include not just participating in and winning many important environmental cases or authoring the first treatise on environmental law in Michigan, or that he influenced and inspired two generations of environmental lawyers. “When I think about his legacy, it is that he always had his eyes on the prize. He never lost sight of how important it is to understand water–and by extension, the whole hydrological cycle–as a commons belonging to the public, and that this aspect of our jurisprudence is fundamental to a civil society and the common good.”
“Jim has never lost sight of how important it is to understand water–and by extension, the whole hydrological cycle–as a commons belonging to the public,” said Skip Pruss.
Continuing His Tireless Efforts
Tom Baird, a longtime leader of Anglers of the Au Sable, calls Jim “a superb environmental litigator: smart, strategic, skilled in the art of trying a case, and possessed of an encyclopedic knowledge of the law. His tireless work promoting the Public Trust Doctrine brought back to life one of the bedrocks of environmental protection. Jim is also a great mentor and friend. I have been honored to know and have worked with him.”
Tom Baird calls Jim “a superb environmental litigator: smart, strategic, skilled in the art of trying a case, and possessed of an encyclopedic knowledge of the law.”
Jim is modest about his work. When he won the State Bar Association’s Champion of Justice Award in 2010, he said it was more an award for his clients of limited means, who have held bake sales and poker tournaments and spent their time raising $1 donations, “to enable me to represent them in a court.”
Jim continues to fight for the commons, shouldering a big share of the work to shut down Line 5 and carrying on numerous other battles. Among many other pursuits, Jim is a skilled writer, authoring not just legal briefs but books, including Michigan Environmental Law (1979), and co-authoring Cross Border Litigation: Environmental Rights in the Great Lakes Ecosystem (1986). He continues to work on a thriller, Waterspout, about a fight for protection of our precious waters.
Jim is a legendary environmental champion, but also a cherished colleague, a devoted husband, father, and grandfather, and the founder of FLOW—a lasting contribution to the commons he has done so much to guard.
Happy Birthday, Jim!
P.S. — 2021 Flashback: The Clean Water Campaign for Michigan Features Jim Olson
In honor of Jim Olson’s birthday and FLOW’s 10th anniversary in 2021, the Clean Water Campaign for Michigan shared this video clip from Seth Bernard’s interview with FLOW founder and senior legal advisor Jim Olson, featured in episodes 11 & 12 of the State of Water podcast. Watch the interview below.