Governor Milliken’s official portrait graced the cover of his public memorial service at the Interlochen Center for the Arts on August 6.
By Dave Dempsey
In the flurry of news coverage about last week’s memorial service for the late Governor William Milliken, there was plenty of talk of days gone by.The Governor left office 37 years ago, and it sometimes seems as though moderation, civility and environmental ethics left office with him.
But focusing on that would be the wrong takeaway. The Milliken example is a model for today, not a relic of yesterday.
All five speakers at the service, including Milliken’s longtime advisor Bill Rustem and Governor Gretchen Whitmer, struck the right note—a celebration rather than a sad farewell.
Public consciousness is again growing of the need to stabilize our climate, protect fresh water, and conserve vital habitat.But we cannot wait for another Milliken or Teddy Roosevelt to convert that consciousness into positive change.
Instead, it is time for us to lead—and the political so-called leaders will follow.I think Governor Milliken would approve of renewed citizen activism to meet the challenges of our time.
Jim Olson is FLOW’s Founder, President, and Legal Advisor
Photo: Kolke Creek in the headwaters of the AuSable River was protected by MEPA after the Michigan Supreme Court prohibited discharge of 1 million gallons of oil-field treated wastewater.
Editor’s note: This is part 1 of a series on the history of import of the MEPA.
By Jim Olson
Serendipity can mean chance, destiny, and providence. But serendipity means nothing without the commitment of people, often ordinary people whose hearts were moved to act with complete trust that what they were doing was the right thing.
Such was the case when a group of civic-minded citizens and organizations in April 1969 took a first-of-its-kind, draft environmental law to the political leaders and powerbrokers of Michigan. Their sustained effort resulted, 50 years ago on July 27, 1970, in Governor William Milliken, surrounded by members of the legislature from both sides of the aisle, signing into law the world’s first environmental citizen suit law. The Michigan Environmental Protection Act of 1970, the MEPA, created the legal right of citizens to bring suits in court to protect the environment in which they live. But the cordial, nonpartisan ceremony doesn’t tell the real story.
The 1960s were tumultuous times. It wasn’t just the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War. The jolting assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr., President John Kennedy, and his brother Robert Kennedy shattered the illusion that citizens could simply trust the government as if it was a benevolent parent to protect them. By the late 1960s, people realized that they must care, march, speak out, and participate in government decision-making, to expect government to listen, and to do something if government didn’t.
Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring exposed the poisoning of the environment, the food we eat, and water we drink, from unbridled use of pesticides like DDT. Smog choked our cities, rivers caught on fire, an oil well ruptured off the coast of Santa Barbara. Scientists declared Lake Erie “dead.” In 1965, a federal appeals court recognized that citizens’ with “special recreational and conservational” interests had legal “standing” to petition a court to overturn a permit for a 2,200 mega-watt pump-storage power plant on the Hudson River. Then came the first Earth Day in 1970, an event that largely started on the campus of the University of Michigan and grew into a national and world-wide movement.
Birth of the MEPA in Grand Rapids and Ann Arbor
So, how did the MEPA come about? What would the proposed law created by a young law professor at the University of Michigan Law School do? How could an environmental law address the scientific complexities of pollution in just two or three pages, when the sweeping regulatory environmental permit standards in the Clean Air Act of 1970 ran 147 pages? [42 U.S.C., Sections 7401-7671]
In 1968, a group of citizens living in Grand Rapids formed the West Michigan Environmental Council—WMEAC—the state’s first broad-based organization of citizens and civic organizations to take action to protect West Michigan’s environment. [Joan Wolfe, A “History of the Michigan Environmental Protection Act” (author’s personal account, circa 1972)] Not long after, led by its founder Joan Wolfe with the help of her husband Will and Grand Rapids lawyers Peter Steketee and Hillary Snell, the group filed a suit in federal district court to stop the use of DDT by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The court, however, threw out the suit because the federal law did not grant them a right to sue to contest the agency’s use of pesticides. All they could do was write letters to persuade the government not to do it.
Professor Joe Sax (1936-2014)
Undeterred, Wolfe and WMEAC contacted a law professor Joe Sax, who had recently joined the faculty at the U of M Law School, to see if a law could be written to fix the lack of the legal right to sue to prevent the degradation of the state’s air, water, and natural resources. By early 1969, Sax drafted a proposed law, which five years later after Michigan’s Supreme Court upheld its constitutionality, he would call an “Environmental Bill of Rights.”[“Michigan Upholds and Ecology Law that Let’s Citizens Halt Harmful Projects,” The New York Times, Archives, Jan. 26, 1975.] The model law stated that “any person could bring an action in court to protect the air, water, and natural resources or the public trust therein” from “likely pollution, impairment, or destruction.”
The model law stated that “any person could bring an action in court to protect the air, water, and natural resources or the public trust therein” from “likely pollution, impairment, or destruction.”
WMEAC convened a vast coalition of community and business leaders, conservation leaders, law students, journalists, and many civic organizations—UAW, AFL-CIO, Michigan United Conservation Clubs, League of Women Voters, National Audubon, the Black Unity Council, the PTA—and showed the draft law to a long-time sportsman, an articulate and highly respected member of the state House of Representatives, Tom Anderson. [Dave Dempsey, Ruin and Recovery: Michigan’s Rise as a Conservation Leader, Chpt. 11, pp. 162-177 (University of Michigan Press, 2004); “Give Earth a Chance,” note 1, supra.] Known as the “gentle giant” because of his reflective manner and his 6-foot, 6-inch frame, [“Thomas Jefferson Anderson-Environmentalist,” Meandering Michigan History] Anderson and his natural resources committee met with Sax, and commenced artful discussions with representatives from both political parties. [Id., Dave Dempsey, at p. 176-177] On April 1, 1969, buoyed by the surging support of so many individuals and organizations, Anderson and sponsor Warren Goemaere introduced the “Sax” bill as House Bill 3055.
The bill’s central feature, a citizen suit to remove complex obstacles of administrative law, [James Olson, Michigan Environmental Law, Chpt. 9, p. 185 (Neahtawanta Press, 1981)] posed a dramatic change at the time. The model law aimed at the “disillusionment” that administrative agencies were “too closely associated with the interests of industry.” [The Michigan Environmental Protection Act of 1970, 4 U. Mich. J.L. Reform, 121 (1970-1971)] As later described by the state’s highest court, “Not every public agency proved to be diligent and dedicated defenders of the environment. The [MEPA] has provided a sizable share of the initiative for environmental law enforcement for that segment of society most directly affected—the public.” [Ray v Mason County Drain Comm’r, 393 Mich 294, 305 (1975)]
In Lansing, Havoc in the House Hearings
The tide of euphoria surrounding H.B. 3055 soon ebbed. Not to be overtaken by a law that would destroy decades of close ties with their regulators, industry and commercial interests mobilized. Industry claimed citizens would file lawsuits that would harass lawful enterprise and stop progress in its tracks; Ford Motor remained concerned that it would make business difficult. [Joan Wolfe, note 3, supra, p. 5] Attorney General Frank Kelley, Governor Milliken’s legal advisor, and the Department of Natural Resources, even Governor Milliken himself, were skeptical at best. At first, the Michigan Chamber of Commerce at first remained circumspect. During the winter and spring of 1970, Anderson’s committee and Senator Gordon Rockwell’s environment committee scheduled hearings. The Wolfe coalition of civic organizations and individuals from all over the state took on a life of its own. Hundreds of citizens packed the committee rooms.
The Chamber was joined by manufacturing and agricultural interests, and struck with full force. The Chamber coalition offered amendments to sink the bill—a provision that would limit suits to “unreasonable” pollution and impairment. [James Olson, note 9, supra, pp. 192-193. In drafting the original bill, Joe Sax was not doubtful of the foresight in Art. 4, Sec. 52 of the 1963 Constitution that mandated the legislature (“shall”) to protect the air, water, and natural resources of the state from pollution, impairment, or destruction, without a qualifying adjective like “unreasonable.”] Another provision would remove the word “public trust,” weakening the duty of the state to protect its lakes, streams, and valuable public lands.
Debate and citizen outcry at times rose to near maelstroms. But Governor Milliken and other leaders took charge, adamantly supporting the original bill. Frank Kelley withdrew his initial skepticism, and Director Ralph MacMullan and the DNR became strong proponents. When the committee passed and sent H.B. 3055 to the House floor for a vote, more heated debate ensued. On April 21, 1970, the House struck “unreasonable” and the other damaging amendments, and the bill passed almost in its original form. [Dempsey, note 6, supra, p. 174-175; Olson, note 9, supra] Now it was the Senate’s turn.
Emerging Ultimately Unscathed in the Senate
The plight of H.B. 3055 was no less dramatic in the Senate. Tom Washington, the powerful, brash head of Michigan United Conservation Clubs, warned the Senate could be the bill’s downfall. [Wolfe, note 3, supra] The Chamber renewed its demand to weaken the MEPA by reinserting the word “unreasonable” in front of pollution. Farm Bureau called for a penalty of twice the costs and attorney fees if citizens lost their lawsuit; the Manufacturers introduced a change that would remove the feasible and prudent alternative test. [Id.; Wolfe, note 3, supra] Senator Rockwell, the chair of the Senate Environment Committee, a critical Republican ally to the bill’s passage, called for patience. After a newspaper editorial chastised him for not scheduling a hearing, he scheduled a hearing on one week’s notice. Wolfe, WMEAC, UAW, Rep. Anderson, Sax, students from Michigan’s Environmental Law Society, and hundreds of others shifted into high gear and packed the hearing to block the renewed efforts to cripple the bill. Governor Milliken continued to speak up and urge passage of the bill. Weeks passed, and there was silence, so Wolfe once more rallied the troops of citizens, organizations, and leaders, calling on senators to take up the bill or suffer the consequences in their primary election. On the last day before recess, the Senate took up the bill, and it passed unscathed.
Key Provisions of the MEPA
The MEPA is terse compared to other laws. [Act 451, Public Acts of 1994, Part 17, Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act, MCL 324.1701-1706] The opening section simply states that “any person may maintain an action” in court “for the protection of the air, water, and other natural resources and the public trust in these resources from pollution, impairment, or destruction.” [Section 1701(1), MCL 324.1701(1)] The dramatic contrast between the MEPA and long, complex regulations that govern the approval of permits proves the difference. Unlike laws and permitting regulations managed by agencies tasked with narrow, specific technical standards to limit toxic and hazardous substances, harmful discharges, and control or manage toxic wastes, the MEPA took a different tack.
Not only does it grant citizens the right to bring a civil lawsuit, the MEPA charges courts with the responsibility to find the facts and rule in each case whether there is likely pollution based on the underlying factual proofs and science in open court and subject to the truth-searching light of cross examination. [Section 1703(1), MCL 324.1703(1)] In short, the MEPA levels the playing field. All persons or parties to a dispute share equal access and responsibility for addressing or disputing the alleged harm. If a citizen (plaintiff) who files a suit establishes that conduct “has or is likely to pollute, impair, or destroy” the environment, the conduct is prohibited unless the defendant proves that here is “no feasible and prudent alternative” and the conduct is consistent with health, safety, and welfare and an overarching concern for the natural resources or public trust involved. In addition to citizen suits, persons may intervene in an agency permit proceeding and participate as a party to oppose or present evidence that shows the applicant’s proposed conduct or development is likely to cause harm the environment. And, if the harm is shown to likely occur, the agency cannot approve the permit unless it can determine that the applicant has no alternative consistent with the state’s paramount concern for its natural resources. [Section 1705, MCL 324.1705]
In short, the MEPA levels the playing field. All persons or parties to a dispute share equal access and responsibility for addressing or disputing the alleged harm.
But the MEPA does more. It authorized the courts in day-to-day decisions in the cases before them to develop, collectively, what has been called “the common law of the environment.” Each case becomes another benchmark to guide persons, industry, developers, businesses, and governments in deciding what is and what is not permissible conduct affecting the environment. While the MEPA does not cover every minor human action, those actions that exceed the threshold of “likely pollution, impairment, or destruction” do violate the law. This standard has become the lifeblood of Michigan’s environmental principles and ethos. If a court finds the threshold has been violated, the conduct is prohibited unless a defendant proves there is no feasible and prudent alternative that is consistent with the state’s paramount concern to protect its natural resources.
A Message from Joan Wolfe on the MEPA’s Key Lesson
The MEPA was born out of a deep mutual desire by often competing stakeholders to do the right thing. Today, all of us in Michigan should take time to reflect on the lessons learned, the injustices prevented or eliminated, and the principles that have evolved into our common law and ethos to protect the environment. As Joan Wolfe, the mother of MEPA, has wisely passed on to all of us, present and future generations:
“Two ingredients may not be obvious. One is the importance of a coalition agreeing on one priority at a time, and the other is to persist — persist until the ink is dry.
But the lesson I want most to emphasize is the need for the leader/coordinator to reach out and actively encourage a diverse spectrum of individuals and groups to adopt the issue as their own and take some initiative, so that information and work are shared and grow at an exponential pace, and imaginative ideas and help that can make a pivotal difference are more likely to happen.
Think of the woman who went to Lansing just to help swell the crowd, and ended up persuading Peter Kok to vote for a crucial amendment that passed by ONE vote. Think of the creative idea and initiative by two Earth Day leaders that, when publicized at a pivotal point, defused a powerful report from the Attorney General’s office. Think of the parts so many individuals played.
In summary, I go back to the quotes that preceded this account: To me the greatest lesson is: “None of us is as smart as all of us,” and “Nothing we do can be accomplished alone.”[Joan Wolfe, note 3, supra]
This lesson is as true today as it was in 1970. In 2020, we are empowered, and we hold the present right and responsibility to solve the continuing systemic, devastating effects to our air, water, and natural resources in the 21st century. At any time, we have the choice to rise above our political or ideological differences and unite through relentless, tireless, day-to-day work and forward-looking vision to face the complexities and uncertainties in our lives and those of our children and grandchildren.
“But the lesson I want most to emphasize is the need for the leader/coordinator to reach out and actively encourage a diverse spectrum of individuals and groups to adopt the issue as their own and take some initiative, so that information and work are shared and grow at an exponential pace, and imaginative ideas and help that can make a pivotal difference are more likely to happen.” — Joan Wolfe
Editor’s note: Still to come is Part 2 of the series – The MEPA’s Growing Pains
To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the MEPA, the next installment of this series will look at the challenges and growing pains of a new law that has matured into a pillar of Michigan’s and the nation’s environmental laws. Five more states passed their own citizen suit laws patterned after the MEPA, and Congress incorporated citizen suit provisions in the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act.
Within three years after MEPA took effect, as many as 50 citizen suits had been filed across the country, 33 of them in Michigan, and 26 succeeded [Joseph Sax and Roger Connor, Michigan’s Environmental Protection Act: Progress Report, 70 Mich L. Rev 1003 (1972); Joseph Sax and Joseph DiMento, Environmental Citizen Suits: Three Years’ Experience under the Michigan Environmental Protection Act, (Env. L. Quarterly, 1974)] in the six states that had enacted citizen suit laws. Since then, citizen suit provisions have been included in numerous federal laws, and formed the legal framework for state consumer protection laws.
The broad-based provision that authorized courts to prohibit conduct that would pollute the air, water, and natural resources, and the incorporation of the public trust doctrine to protect those resources, would come to influence environmental law and policy around the world. It is not without significance that, in 2007, the MEPA and its author Professor Joe Sax won the Blue Planet Prize, the Nobel prize for the environment.
With the approach of the August 6, 2020, memorial service for beloved former Michigan Governor William G. Milliken, FLOW is honored to announce the creation of the Helen and William G. Milliken Fund For Love of Water to extend the former First Family of Michigan’s legacy of equity and environmental protection.
The Milliken Fund is designed to support work that protects the Great Lakes and the public trust rights of those who depend on them, inspires community action advancing environmental stewardship, and sustains internships at FLOW—which is based in Governor Milliken’s hometown of Traverse City—to foster a new generation of environmental leaders. (Click here to read about this summer’s inaugural FLOW Milliken Fund Interns, Zoe Gum and Emma Moulton).
Established at FLOW by a bequest from the Milliken family, the Milliken Fund is welcoming donations from members of the public interested in investing in and extending Helen and Governor Milliken’s legacy of protecting the environment and especially the Great Lakes, advancing social equity, and promoting civility and bipartisanship.
“Organizations like FLOW have built themselves around the same policies that both of my parents advocated,” said Bill Milliken, Jr., a prominent Ann Arbor commercial realtor, who carries on the family tradition of public service in multiple roles, including as a board member of the Mackinac Bridge Authority, Washtenaw Community College, New Detroit, and the Groundwork Center. “Supporting FLOW helps make their legacy more visible.”
The longest-serving governor in Michigan’s history whose public service reached back to World War II, William G. Milliken passed away October 18, 2019, in Traverse City at age 97. He served as governor of Michigan from 1969 to 1983. He was preceded in death by the passing in late 2012 of his wife Helen, who also earned a reputation for environmental stewardship, elevation of women’s rights, advocacy for the arts, and an abiding decency toward others.
The memorial service and celebration of Governor Milliken’s life will take place at 2:00 p.m. EDT on Thursday, August 6, at the 4,000-seat, open-air Kresge Auditorium at the Interlochen Center for the Arts, where he served on the Board of Trustees from 1983-1997. The gathering is free and open to the public.
Speakers at the August 6 event include Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer; Bill Rustem, a senior policy advisor in both the Milliken and Snyder administrations; Capt. Arlan Brower, retired from the Michigan State Police; Chuck Stokes of WXYZ-TV; and journalist and longtime friend Jack Lessenberry. Those attending are encouraged to arrive early and be seated to help accommodate Governor Whitmer’s schedule. The memorial also will be broadcast live on IPR News Radio. Listen online or with a mobile device or on the radio to WICA-FM 91.5 Traverse City, WHBP-FM 90.1 Harbor Springs, or WLMN-FM 89.7 Manistee.
“It’s an honor for FLOW to be associated with Governor Milliken’s life and legacy, including his many environmental accomplishments,” said Liz Kirkwood, executive director of FLOW. “The Governor and his wife Helen did so much for our air, land, water, fish, and wildlife, and their efforts continue to benefit Michigan and all who live and visit here. We pledge to extend those efforts and engage the public, communities, and emerging environmental leaders in the shared effort.”
“We are deeply grateful to the Milliken family for their selecting FLOW to carry on the good works of Bill and Helen Milliken,” said FLOW founder and legal advisor Jim Olson, a Traverse City native and friend of Governor Milliken and his family. “We are inspired by their leadership that elevated the State of Michigan to be a national leader in the strength and scope of its environmental laws and policies, many of them directly addressing Great Lakes water diversion and water quality issues.”
The Governor’s environmental accomplishments include:
Expanding state funding of recreation and parks programs to include urban areas like Detroit;
Controls on phosphorus pollution from detergent soaps, which led to dramatic reductions in algae blooms; and
The signing of laws to protect sand dunes, control hazardous waste, promote recycling, and create what is now the Natural Resources Trust Fund, which has provided more than $1 billion to purchase and steward recreational and environmentally significant land.
FLOW senior policy advisor Dave Dempsey, an author of several books on the Great Lakes and Michigan’s environment, wrote in his 2006 biography, William G. Milliken: Michigan’s Passionate Moderate, “Governor Milliken is Michigan’s gold standard for environmental stewardship, civility in public life and a concern for all the citizens of Michigan. It was a profound pleasure to get to know the Millikens in the course of writing the biography.”
Before becoming Governor, William G. Milliken served in the state senate and as the state’s lieutenant governor. He also was president of the former Milliken’s department stores. He flew 50 combat missions in Europe during World War II, surviving two crash landings and receiving seven military honors, including the Purple Heart and Air Medal.
August 6 — 2:00 pm EDT — Memorial Service for Governor William G. Milliken at Interlochen Center for the Arts
The memorial service and celebration of Governor Milliken’s life will take place at 2:00 p.m. EDT on Thursday, August 6, at the 4,000-seat, open-air Kresge Auditorium at the Interlochen Center for the Arts, where he served on the Board of Trustees from 1983-1997. The gathering is free and open to the public. Speakers at the August 6 event include Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer; Bill Rustem, a senior policy advisor in both the Milliken and Snyder administrations; Capt. Arlan Brower, retired from the Michigan State Police; Chuck Stokes of WXYZ-TV; and journalist and longtime friend Jack Lessenberry. Those attending are encouraged to arrive early and be seated to help accommodate Governor Whitmer’s schedule.
Attendees are asked to register for the memorial service so that capacity can be monitored in an effort to plan for social distancing and other health and safety considerations. Please visit Eventbrite to register. Capacity will be limited and registration does not confirm a reservation. Attendees are asked to plan to honor public health safety measures including face coverings and adhering to physical distancing.
The memorial will be broadcast live on IPR News Radio. Listen online or with a mobile device or on the radio to WICA-FM 91.5 Traverse City, WHBP-FM 90.1 Harbor Springs, or WLMN-FM 89.7 Manistee and other NPR affiliates in Michigan.
WTVS Detroit Public Television will offer a livestream of the event at www.dptv.org.
Photo: Students and faculty at the University of Michigan organized an environmental teach-in attended by 50,000 people in March 1970. It led to the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970.
By Dave Dempsey
Although American environmentalism reaches back to the early 20th century, public demands for clean water, clean air, and healthy ecosystems reached a crescendo in 1970. As 2020 dawns, FLOW believes it’s time to remember and reflect on all that happened that 50 years ago—and how we can make the next 50 years a time of further dramatic progress for our precious waters and the environment.
At the five-day teach-in, in which an estimated 50,000 people participated, Victor Yannacone, a nationally recognized environmental attorney, spoke on use of the courts to halt pollution. He told students, “This land is your land. It doesn’t belong to Ford, General Motors, or Chrysler…it doesn’t belong to any soulless corporation. It belongs to you and me.” A new student group called ENACT organized the week’s events, which included an “Environmental Scream-Out,” a tour of local pollution sites, music by singer Gordon Lightfoot, and speeches by entertainer Arthur Godfrey, scientist Barry Commoner, consumer advocate Ralph Nader, and Senators Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin and Edward Muskie of Maine.
The national observance of Earth Day followed on April 22.
Earth Day 1970, however, was just one of many events and accomplishments—and a few crises—both nationally and in Michigan. During 2020, FLOW will note these and other milestones from 50 years ago:
December 31, 1970:The Michigan Great Lakes Shorelands Act was signed into law by Governor Milliken.
The first milestone, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), was co-authored by the late Congressman John Dingell of Michigan. As its title suggests, the law established a federal policy on the environment, created a federal Council on Environmental Quality, and required environmental impact statements on proposed major federal activities affecting the environment.
President Richard Nixon, who signed the legislation, said, “I have become convinced that the 1970s absolutely must be the years when America pays its debt to the past by reclaiming the purity of its air, its waters and its living environment.”
In 1970, there was a broad bipartisan consensus that the United States and Michigan needed to do a much better job of protecting our environment. It’s a lesson from which we can learn today.
Share Your Environmental Recollections from 1970
FLOW is looking for contributions from you for this 50th anniversary year of Earth Day and related milestones. Here’s how you can help:
Suggest additional local, state, or national milestones from 1970.
Provide short guest commentaries (500 words) with your views on the significance of 1970, what’s happened since then environmentally, and where you hope we stand 50 years from now.
Provide your historical photos of significant environmental events from 1970.
Michigan has many magnificent natural features, but none is quite like Hartwick Pines. A small remnant of the great white pine forest that spanned millions of acres of Michigan before the European arrival, the 49 acres at the heart of Hartwick Pines contain trees as tall as 160 feet and as old as 400 years. When, in 1992, a storm mortally wounded the tallest and largest of the primeval trees, known as the Monarch, it generated news headlines.
Another great tree has fallen. On Friday, October 18, former Governor William G. Milliken passed away at age 97 in Traverse City. The longest-serving governor in the history of Michigan, Milliken distinguished himself in numerous other ways, several of which seem especially important today.
Former Vermont Governor Richard Snelling in 1982 suggested that Milliken “will surely be recorded in history as one of the nation’s great governors.” The day after Milliken’s passing, the Traverse City Record-Eagle wrote in an editorial that, “We cherish our governor … for his most precious quality: his innate ability to set aside party, politics and partisanship for the good of all Michiganders”.
Perhaps the Governor’s most lasting policy legacy is the framework of environmental laws that came into being during his 14 years in office, from 1969 to 1982. It was a case of the right person at the right time. As public consciousness of a century of environmental neglect and abuse peaked, and a clamor for a new approach grew to a crescendo, Governor Milliken took the initiative to propose or support, and ultimately sign into law the Michigan Environmental Protection Act, the Inland Lakes and Streams Act, the Wetland Protection Act, the Wilderness and Natural Areas Act, the Sand Dune Management and Protection Act, and many more. When the Legislature deadlocked on a proposed recycling deposit on beer and soda containers, he helped lead a citizen initiative to put the proposed law on the ballot. Voters approved it by a two-to-one margin in 1976.
Even in the 1970s, the decade of the first Earth Day, it wasn’t always politically easy to push for a cleaner environment. When scientists identified phosphorus laundry soaps as a major contributor to the algae blooms in western Lake Erie and elsewhere, the proposed remedy was a strict limitation on phosphorus content. Major Republican contributors strongly opposed the change, but Milliken defied them and took aggressive action to bring it into effect. Within only several years phosphorus discharges from wastewater treatment plants plummeted and Lake Erie began to recover.
Another important part of the Milliken record was his concern for the state’s great cities, including Detroit, which was deeply distressed during the 1970s. Working with Democratic Mayor Coleman Young, he invested state and federal resources in the city and won political support unusual for a Republican in the city. Today Milliken’s name crowns Michigan’s first urban state park on the Detroit waterfront.
Milliken’s regard for Michigan’s environment began early. His Traverse City upbringing (and a cottage in nearby Acme) acquainted him with woods and waters. Among his earliest memories were outdoor outings and swimming in Grand Traverse Bay. Deeply rooted in his home community, he frequently returned on weekends to his house on the bay while governor, finding peace and renewal.
But the Governor’s environmental record and values are not his only legacy. His style of governance—shunning the extremes, looking for solutions on which diverse interests could compromise for the public good—was the ultimate trademark of his service. In a time of divided government, when Democrats largely controlled the Legislature, he was able to enact his program through negotiation and cooperation.
Governor Milliken did not demonize his opponents. Public name-calling was foreign to him. And his civility worked. He remained in office longer than any other governor of Michigan in part because voters trusted him to do the right thing.
In researching and writing Governor Milliken’s biography, William G. Milliken: Michigan’s Passionate Moderate, I was honored to spend many hours with him and his wife Helen Milliken, a major historical figure in her own right. They were in person as they were in public—unfailingly gracious, kind, and reflective. There was nothing false or inauthentic about them.
In our time together, both Millikens spoke repeatedly of their appreciation of Michigan’s beauty and the need to continue fighting to protect it. It should not be forgotten that it was Helen Milliken who alerted her husband to the controversy over oil development in the wilds of the Pigeon River Country State Forest, and urged him to take a stand in favor of the forest’s conservation. She was a major influence on his environmental policies.
After he left office, he famously summarized his environmental values: “In Michigan,” he said, “our soul is not to be found in steel and concrete, or sprawling new housing developments or strip malls. Rather, it is found in the soft petals of a trillium, the gentle whisper of a headwater stream, the vista of a Great Lakes shoreline, and the wonder in children’s eyes upon seeing their first bald eagle. It is that soul that we must preserve.”
A part of Michigan’s soul passed from the scene last week, but thanks to Governor Milliken’s work, our soul will renew itself for generations to come.
A memorial service for Governor Milliken will be held in May 2020. The Milliken family has asked that, in lieu of flowers, donations in his memory and in support of his environmental legacy be made to FLOW and the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy.
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.’”