The Michigan Department of Natural Resources historically has played an important role in protecting the environment, particularly during the environmental awakening of the 1970s, when Seth Phillips got his start in state government. In this photo from 2018, an angler speaks with a DNR creel clerk. Photo: Courtesy of the Michigan DNR
By Seth Phillips
My career in environmental protection really began as a youngster. My parents had built a cottage “Up North” in the early 1960s, and I was fortunate to spend my summers on the shores of Lake Michigan, climbing and playing on the Sleeping Bear Dunes before anyone knew it existed and hiking in the north woods. Notwithstanding the big alewife die off that made one summer stink, I fell in love with the northern Michigan outdoors that so many have come to love.
Growing up in southeast Michigan, I was also very familiar with the industrial, urban side of our state. As the years passed, I began to understand the troubled relationship between these two sides of the Great Lakes state. While in college, and struggling to chart my path forward between the urban professional life I knew and was expected to follow, and the natural world I wanted to know better, I discovered the University of Michigan School of Natural Resources, to which I eagerly transferred, and graduated in 1974. My life-long journey to work for our environment had begun.
Starting in 1977, I spent 30 years working for the Michigan Departments of Natural Resources (DNR), Environmental Quality (DEQ, now EGLE) and Transportation (DOT), managing a wide variety of environmental programs, including cross-program planning, hazardous waste management, toxic waste cleanup, emergency response, solid waste management, recycling, field compliance, storm water management, and environmental policy for transportation. I was able to spend a lot of time on policy, legislation, and litigation support—all of which were very interesting and knowledge-expanding work. The dedication to the environment that I shared with all my co-workers never faltered.
But the world in which we worked changed a lot.
I started working as a state regulator in the late 1970s, at a time when there was a strong growth in environmental consciousness in society, and of course, a serious commitment in government to environmental improvement. William Milliken was Michigan’s Governor when I started, and he and the legislature were national leaders in addressing the many challenges our environment faced.
In particular, 1970 was a seminal year for environmental protection in Michigan and nationwide. In January of that year—50 years ago this month— Gov. Milliken unveiled a broad agenda of proposed environmental reforms. In March 1970, students and faculty at the University of Michigan held an environmental teach-in. The first Earth Day was held on April 22.
To work in these programs was great fun back then. New programs were also being enacted at the federal level, which meant money and better program tools. So many programs were new, and we had the freedom and funding to design how they worked and to implement the core values the programs were enacted to foster.
Our direction was to implement the laws. There was little political interference, and there was broad support in the legislature as well as from the Governor. Michigan enacted new laws to manage hazardous waste, clean up toxic waste sites, end open dumping, build state-of-the-art landfills, and protect wetlands. I used to wake up early to get into work before others just so I could get started. Work was fun, my colleagues were great to work with, and many became life-long friends. Together we accomplished a lot. Michigan’s environment is much better today because of the work so many did back then.
But then the dark ages came. John Engler, a new governor not so friendly to our work, took office in 1991. He sought to gain control over us to stop us from allegedly harming his friends in the business world. But we weren’t anti-business. We were anti-polluter. Unfortunately, these categories were often one in the same.
Under Gov. Engler, the DNR was split into two departments with all the environmental programs moving to a new Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), whose director answered solely to the Governor. And all the fun went away. Upholding environmental standards became a discretionary function. Permit denials were simply outlawed. Inside the agency the morbid joke became, “Do you want fries with that permit?” Funding was cut, and staff was slashed and reorganized (in other words, moved from what they knew how to do to what they didn’t know how to do). Enforcement became almost non-existent. Similar changes happened at the federal level as well.
Michigan desperately needs a return to those heady days when protecting the environment meant more than just saying nice things about it. We keep finding new problems without the wherewithal to address them. Meanwhile, in Washington, D.C., the current federal administration is doing enormous harm to our environmental future. Destruction can happen quickly. Restoration takes a very long time. And in the era of climate change, we don’t have a very long time left.
Seth Phillips retired from service for the state of Michigan in 2007 and is currently the Kalkaska County Drain Commissioner.