By Dave Dempsey
It is sometimes difficult to see where a hero’s work fits in history immediately after she dies. Not so in the case of Joan Wolfe, who passed away on January 23. A passionate, visionary and effective champion of Michigan’s environment, she holds an assured place in Michigan’s environmental history. Few citizens have done so much to protect our air, water, land, and living creatures for posterity.
Any account of Joan’s work must feature her role in designing and winning legislative approval of the 1970 Michigan Environmental Protection Act (MEPA). And her founding of the West Michigan Environmental Action Council (WMEAC), the first heavyweight citizens group of environmental advocates in our state. She also chaired the state Natural Resources Commission. A complete story of her life and accomplishments is here.
Joan also wrote a cliffhanger, a history of MEPA and the Inland Lakes and Streams Act of 1972. It’s a detailed history of the citizen action that drove the Michigan Legislature to pass these two extraordinary laws, but it’s no dull academic treatise. There is plenty of behind-the-scenes drama as Joan, her husband Will, and a multitude of Michigan citizens overcome lobbyists and unsympathetic legislators who fiercely resist strengthening protections for the environment. Her example and history of citizen advocacy is as important today as it was in the 1970s, maybe more so.
In an era well before e-mail and cell phones, Joan turned I-96 into her advocacy avenue, hurrying the 70 miles to and from her home in Belmont to reach legislators of both major parties and all philosophies for face-to-face persuasion from morning to midnight. But she believed she could have no success without the force of citizens pressuring their own lawmakers, and she dedicated considerable time to partnering with and training groups across the state. One of her fundamental insights was that elected officials are rarely the leaders; rather, citizens must lead those so-called leaders.
I had the honor and privilege of getting to know Joan and Will while researching my first book, Ruin and Recovery (University of Michigan Press, 2001). Every minute I spent with them was memorable. Joan was especially concerned that I accurately report the history of the environmental movement during her leadership era. She graciously reviewed each word and gently pointed out any gaps or inaccuracies.
She also insisted that I make clear that the Inland Lakes and Streams Act was the brainchild and legacy of Will. Truly, they were a team in fashioning tools that 50 years later play a key role in safeguarding Michigan’s natural resources.
Joan’s advocacy was thoughtful and strategic, not governed by emotion (despite her fierce commitment). She encouraged citizen activists to be civil and respectful, not shrill and scattershot. That was one secret to her success.
Joan was the first woman appointed to the Natural Resources Commission and later became its first female chairperson. No woman had served in an equivalent role in any other state. She broke that glass ceiling. In the 1970s, the citizens conservation and environmental movement was still too much a male show. Some in the movement stereotyped her as an “emotional woman” before coming around to professing that she was more cool-headed and thoughtful, and had more cojones than most of the males.
Joan lent me a videotape (when there were still VCRs) of a special TV program broadcast by Grand Rapids TV-8 on Earth Day 1970. The program featured work she, WMEAC, and others were doing that day. Much of the special addressed the need to protect what was then the future—what we call the present. I told her I was profoundly moved that she was thinking of us, and our children. I think she was pleased.
We owe Joan and her generation a debt it is difficult to repay. But if I could ask her now, I am certain she would say: don’t be disheartened, don’t give up, citizens will always win if they persist. Give your best, and 50 years from now the results of your work will endure, whether it’s a state law or protection of a small local wetland.
We can do no less to respect Joan’s legacy.