Tag: William Milliken

The Milliken Legacy: More than Nostalgia

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.

FLOW has contributed plenty to the the conversation—in our blog coverage, in our Milliken video testimonials, and in the news media—about the Milliken environmental legacy, including the Michigan Environmental Protection Act. The Governor happened to serve at a time when public consciousness of the need for environmental reforms was peaking, and the man and the times together contributed to our state’s advancement.

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.

The Man Who Biked to Work

Jim Olson is FLOW’s Founder, President, and Legal Advisor

By Jim Olson

In the late 1950s, I would ride my bike from East Bay, on the other side of the ridge that runs along Old Mission Peninsula, to near downtown Traverse City, and I would notice a man on a bike. It seemed odd because in the 1950s no one rode bikes to work, especially not dressed in business attire. It turned out to be William Milliken, who would go on to become Michigan’s longest-serving governor.

I remember I first saw William and Helen Milliken when I signed up for Traverse City Record-Eagle ski school. They, along with several parents—the Hayes, Cornwells, Halls, Orrs, Babels, Merrills, and many more—taught us how to snowplow and stem turn down the hill, with classical music blaring from the loudspeakers.

In high school I saw Mr. Milliken riding his bike, and I knew he’d been elected State Senator. Once again, it struck me as unusual. I really didn’t know the man who would later become Governor Milliken then; I was just one of many young people, no doubt of all ages, who were acquainted with and admired him. Here was a man who rode to the beat of his own drum.

At the beginning of my senior year of college, I took a gamble at not being drafted into the Army, and applied for law school. I didn’t exactly excel at college, but one of the requirements for admission was a letter of recommendation. Because I attended Michigan State University with almost 40,000 students, I didn’t know any professor well enough, nor would they know me, to ask for a letter. Then it occurred to me: I wondered if it would be alright to contact then-Lt. Gov. Milliken, who’d been the running mate of Governor George Romney, describe my circumstances and desire to attend law school, and ask him if he’d write a letter of recommendation.

Not long after sending my inquiry, a reply letter arrived written on the stationery of the Executive Office of Michigan, stating that Lt. Gov. Milliken would write a letter of recommendation. I wrote him back, thanking him. That he would take the time to write a letter of recommendation for me has remained with me throughout my career.

I think it was the summer before graduating from law school, a few of us met at the Cornwells’ house for a morning at their beach on West Bay. A man swam offshore, heading north. It was newly elected Governor William Milliken. I could send him only a silent thought of gratitude, realizing that his letter may have tipped the scales that landed me in law school in the first place.

After law school, my wife and I moved to East Lansing. One evening I walked over to the Student Union, and noticed a poster announcing a presentation by a Professor Joe Sax of the University of Michigan Law School, on Michigan’s new environmental protection law. This intrigued me, so I went to the meeting and learned about the new law drafted by Professor Sax, passed by the legislature, and supported by thousands of citizens, including the support of the Governor and Helen Milliken. On July 27, 1970, just over 50 years ago, Governor Milliken signed the enrolled bill into law.

After finishing my first legal job, clerking at the Michigan Supreme Court, I moved to Traverse City and opened a law practice with Mike Dettmer. We worked with trial attorney Dean Robb, and soon found ourselves in the middle of one of Michigan’s first environmental lawsuits over the fate of the excess land owned by the highway department along the mouth of the Boardman River. Soon after, we were hired on to file a lawsuit against a consortium of steel companies and their Upper Peninsula subsidiary electrical power and railroad companies. 

Between 1973 and 1974, we filed both cases under the Michigan Environmental Protection Act (MEPA), the law Governor Milliken had signed three years earlier. The lawsuit caused an uproar, and quickly mushroomed into proceedings in several courts and the Department of Natural Resources. Before we knew it, George Weeks, Governor Milliken’s press secretary and  trusted advisor, invited us into the Governor’s Executive Office to learn more about the issues of the lawsuit. Then, a group of power brokers and their legislator friends introduced a bill to gut, effectively repeal, the MEPA, to defeat our lawsuit. Despite the political pressure and need for jobs in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Governor Milliken—and his allies—gently held firm in his support and would not sign a bill that would lead to harm to our State’s environment.

By 1978, the State of Michigan desperately sought a place on state land for a burial pit to dispose of the bags of hazardous animal feed accidentally laced with the fire retardant PBB and spread through the dairy farm country of Michigan. The State Department of Natural Resources (DNR) picked a remote area of state forest in the northeastern Lower Peninsula. A firestorm of opposition, driven by frustration, fear, and close-to-the-land citizens, rose into the heated political atmosphere. It was an election year. Governor Milliken, whom I supported, was running for his third term. The PBB Action Committee, a group of residents from Mio, led by a wise Amish man and passionate local newspaper publisher, asked me to file a lawsuit to block a series of clay-lined pits for the disposal of the contaminated feed, milk products, and cows, dying and stuffed in exploding 55-gallon drums.

While the courts pressed the case to a trial within 30 days, the election heated up like the summer weather. In late June, the Michigan Supreme Court let the construction and burial in the first pit proceed because of the emergency, but put on hold the rest of the pits. My clients decried the burial in the first pit. The next I knew, I got a call from a news reporter, asking me if I knew my clients had hung the Governor, DNR Director, and State Geologist in effigy. At first, I was appalled and upset that my clients hadn’t told me about their plans, especially in the middle of a court case. Then I turned rueful because of my gratitude for Gov. Milliken, a man who didn’t have to, but still wrote a letter helping me go to law school. Later, I learned that the Governor, his effigy hanging behind him, spoke to the embattled, frustrated citizens who would carry a badge of the PBB crisis in their small, rural community. [Dave Dempsey, William G. Milliken: Michigan’s Passionate Moderate (University of Michigan Press, 2006)]

I never told him, and wish I had, that I was sorry for what happened, and so, never brought up the irony that he’d written the letter of recommendation. I can imagine him passing it off gently, and maybe smiling. I seriously doubt the incident crossed his mind again the day after it happened. In the end, I calmed down, realizing my clients weren’t the violent type and had a right to be heard. PBB crisis or not, Gov. Milliken won reelection in 1978 with nearly 57 percent of the vote.

The same year as the PBB case, citizens led by the West Michigan Environmental Action Council (WMEAC) filed an appeal in the Michigan Supreme Court to block oil and gas development in the Pigeon River Country State Forest, full of flowing streams, trout, and wildlife, the largest natural area in the Lower Peninsula. I had recently finished a research project on the history of Michigan’s public lands and policies, so, filed an amicus brief (friend of the court) for the Environmental Law Society at U of M Law School and Michigan’s Public Interest Research Group, supporting WMEAC and arguing that the strict protections of the public trust doctrine in MEPA should be applied to the special and unique characteristics of the State’s Pigeon River Country. Once again, I witnessed a close-up case in our highest court, in no small part the result of Governor and Hellen Milliken’s strong stance to stop oil and gas development because of the natural values they held dear for all Michiganders.

In 1975, the DNR proposed an oil and gas development plan that limited oil and gas development to certain areas in the same state forest. Gov. Milliken ordered the DNR to prepare an impact statement in an attempt to derail the drilling and better determine the impacts. By 1976, the Governor and Helen Milliken strongly opposed the development plan, but the Natural Commission adopted the order, and WMEAC filed a citizen suit under the MEPA to save the forest and its elk herd, the largest east of the Mississippi.[Dave Dempsey, Ruin & Recovery, pp. 201-207 (University of Michigan Press, 2001)] Throughout the controversy, the Governor and Helen Milliken stood by their values despite political pressure, camping in the Pigeon River Country State Forest and speaking out in favor of WMEAC and protection of the forest.

In 1979, the Michigan Supreme Court ruled in favor of WMEAC and the forest, finding a violation of the MEPA and prohibiting drilling. Shortly after, the oil and gas industry and its allies introduced a bill in the legislature to reverse the court victory. The Governor and Helen, thousands of citizens, and legislative allies held fast, and ultimately, a stronger bill was enacted that prohibited development in the northern two-thirds of the forest, and allowed drilling in the southern-third; it also resulted in what is now the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund (MNRTF), signed into law by Governor Milliken in 1976. The Fund receives royalties from state land oil and gas leases for the sole purpose of purchasing and developing recreational and environmentally significant land. The MNRTF has approved grants to date totaling more than $1 billion to acquire and protect tens of thousands of acres of unique lands throughout Michigan.

In the 1980s, after Gov. Milliken left office, he was one of the first to warn of the threat of water diversions out of the Great Lakes. He pointed to a Texas company that had announced plans to divert water from the Great Lakes to the coal fields of Wyoming, and return the water carrying a coal slurry, presumably, dried and sent to steam-electric generation power plants. Not long after, the Army Corps of Engineers proposed increasing the Chicago Diversion of water out of Lake Michigan to raise levels of the Mississippi River during drought. In response, Gov. Milliken formed the Center for Great Lakes, and soon governors from all Great Lakes states gathered and signed the Great Lakes Charter of 1985; [Dave Dempsey, William G. Milliken: Michigan’s Passionate Moderate (University of Michigan Press, 2006)] Congress passed a law that prohibited water diversions out of the Great Lakes basin unless consented to by all eight Governors of states in the Basin. During this time, several groups and some of us citizens organized a conference on the future of the Great Lakes and its ecosystem. Helen and Bill Milliken agreed to support the effort, and keynote the meeting.

The list of their efforts goes on. In the 1990s and 2000s, the Governor and Helen lent their time, names, and otherwise supported environmental and land uses issues and organizations like the Michigan Land Use Institute, now Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities, and Michigan Environmental Council. [Dave Dempsey, Ruin & Recovery, pp. 201-207 (University of Michigan Press, 2001)] The two of them abhorred giant highway billboards and urban sprawl, “a plague on the landscape,” Gov. Milliken once said.

During the negotiations in 2005 over an exemption for bottled water from the diversion ban of the Great Lakes Compact, Gov. Milliken  wrote an op-ed, warning governments and citizens not to turn water into a commodity, but to protect it as part of the public trust in the Great Lakes on which all of us depend. [Each state holds title to navigable waters in trust for its citizens, and has a solemn duty to protect the waters for public purposes like navigation, fishing, swimming, and boating. Glass v Goeckel, 473 Mich 667 (2005); Illinois Central R Rd v Illinois, 387 U.S. 146 (1892).]

When the state and county highway departments wanted to build a bypass around Traverse City with a new four-lane highway over the Boardman River, on a cold, puffs-of-breath morning, Helen Milliken stood on the river bank with conservation and civic leaders and spoke of the wisdom of keeping the area’s natural systems and beauty as a key value to our quality of life. The bypass was later rejected by the then Department of Environmental Quality, and then canceled in 2001 by the State’s transportation department. 

In 2004, the Millikens topped the list of several leaders and organizations who filed an amicus brief before the Michigan Supreme Court to oppose the removal of standing—the right of citizens to file lawsuits under MEPA to protect their air, water, and natural resources. And, it wasn’t just environmental issues the Governor and Helen aligned themselves with and supported; they reached out to the African-American community in Detroit and around the State, and supported Helen’s clarion call for the equal rights of women and other minorities. [Dave Dempsey, William G. Milliken: Michigan’s Passionate Moderate (University of Michigan Press, 2006)] And during all of this time, the Millikens maintained a quiet life whenever they could at their home on Grand Traverse Bay, close to the natural world they treasured.

There are other times, video clips in my memory, of the humble, soft-spoken Governor of Michigan, showing up to support an event, a project, and organization, always full of gratitude, always shifting attention from himself to those around him, his heart reflecting outward. At FLOW, the Great Lakes law and policy center that I founded and still advise today, all of us were breathless after Gov. Milliken’s passing in October 2019 when Bill Milliken, Jr., showing his outward love of nature and our work, contacted my colleague, and the Milliken family’s biographer and friend, Dave Dempsey, to let us know that FLOW was to be the recipient of a gift from his father’s estate.

One of the last memories I have of Gov. Milliken happened a few years ago. He dropped off an envelope of information that he and Helen wanted to leave for someone at my law firm on East Front Street in downtown Traverse City. I was walking from the side entrance over the walkway under an archway of leaves, and passed Gov. Milliken on his way to the side door. He smiled, we exchanged greetings, and he stopped, silently looked at the canopy of leaves and flowers along the walkway.

He said, “This is such a lovely space.”

The MEPA Turns 50

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]

Joan Wolfe

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.

FLOW’s Video Testimonials Honoring Gov. William and Helen Milliken

Michigan’s late Governor William G. Milliken was celebrated at a public memorial on August 6, 2020, at Interlochen Center for the Arts. To honor the Milliken legacy, FLOW has launched the “Helen & William G. Milliken Fund For Love of Water.” FLOW also published a series of video interviews in the run-up to August 6 that feature those who best knew the Governor and his late wife Helen.

Gov. Milliken, Michigan’s longest-serving governor, was known for his environmental stewardship and civility in politics. During his tenure in office from 1969 until 1983, Gov. Milliken provided critical support for Michigan’s 10-cent beverage container deposit law, expanded state funding for recreation and parks programs in Detroit, and signed the state’s landmark Michigan Environmental Protection Act, as well as laws to protect sand dunes, control hazardous waste, and promote recycling. Gov. Milliken passed away in October 2019 in his native and beloved Traverse City. He was preceded in his passing by Helen, herself a champion of environmental stewardship and the women’s rights movement.

Check out those testimonial videos below:

“The bottle bill was one of the most significant environmental initiatives (of my father’s tenure), and we led the the nation with it,” said their son Bill Milliken, Jr. “They went out at one point and collected a mile of highway litter and brought it into the cabinet room in Lansing to show the media that there was an issue with waste along our highways.” Milliken, Jr., also remembered his mother Helen’s activism. “When the Republican convention was held in Detroit in 1980, my father was on the floor speaking at the convention and my mother was in the street outside Cobo Hall protesting that the platform hadn’t accomodated women’s issues in the way she felt it needed to.”

“I first knew Bill and Helen when Bill was running for office back in the ’70s,” said Ann Rogers, co-chair of NMEAC (Northwest Michigan Environmental Action Council). “I thought he was a prince of a person who really cared about the environment, women’s issues, and the bottle deposit bill. There were so many things that he sponsored.”

“To me, Governor Milliken was the epitome of what a public servant is,” said longtime policy advisor Bill Rustem. “Not a politician, but a public servant. Someone who thought generations down the road and said ‘if we do this policy today, it will mean this much for our children, and to their children, and to their children.’ That was the way he thought. His legacy lives on.”

Governor William G. and Helen Milliken “came into office at a time when strict environmental regulation was really needed, and they had many opportunities to shape the landscape, especially in Michigan,” says Zoe Gum, a Traverse City native and FLOW’s Milliken policy intern for summer 2020. “Their work to develop the bottle return policy in Michigan was really incredible. That shaped everyone’s lives. I wouldn’t be returning bottles every other week if it wasn’t for them.”

“Most people think that moderate politics is without any true conviction or feeling—it’s sort of in the mushy middle,” said Dave Dempsey, FLOW’s senior policy advisor and author of the biography, William G. Milliken, Michigan’s Passionate Moderate. “But for him, being a moderate was an intense and fierce belief that by being a moderate in the middle he could craft policies that could benefit everybody.”

“Bill and Helen both had an impressive capacity to connect with people of all ages and even with young people,” said Dr. Terrie Taylor, a world renowned malaria researcher, Traverse City native and longtime Milliken family friend. “I think that’s partly because they were so broad-minded and also non-judgmental in their approach. But also both of them had very lively senses of humor, and they could pick up on funny little quirks in situations that, I think, especially young people found endearing and perhaps more approachable.”

“From what I gathered, Milliken was able to put aside party lines in favor of protecting these resources that we all share, no matter what party you represent,” Emma Grace Moulton, FLOW’s Milliken intern for Communications. “I think that’s super important, especially to this generation who may not see that as often in politics. The Millikens care about people. William and Helen were at the forefront of LGBTQ protections and women’s rights; they were feminists before it was cool and trendy to protect those people’s rights. I think that’s super important to hear about in this generation where everything is so divided—that there are people who are doing this work to protect our shared resources.”

“One of my favorite stories of Bill Milliken was, when he was Governor, he would come home on weekends—and who wouldn’t when you live on the base of Old Mission Peninsula looking out over West Bay,” said Glen Chown, executive director of the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy. “I think he got a lot of positive energy and was recharged when he would come visit Old Mission Peninsula and hike in places like Old Mission State Park.”

“You Google the Milliken family, and you’ll find they have been pillars for the Traverse City community,” said Traverse City Mayor Jim Carruthers. “His grandfather owned what once was this great department store. His grandfather was mayor of Traverse City, like myself. They started out supporting Traverse City, the natural resources, and the people that live here. Something that’s special in my mind, being a gay man, is that in 2015 Bill Milliken signed an amicus brief to support same-sex marriage. That really helped us as a town, as a state move forward with the general acceptance of all people.”

“Bill Millken was a war hero in my estimation,” said Empire resident Marc Oberschulte, a special assistant to the Governor from 1975-79. “He flew 45 missions as a gunner in Europe in a B-24. Many close calls. He almost died a couple times. Bad accidents with the airplanes. He wouldn’t have wanted to do war again, but he wouldn’t have missed it either. It made him believe that he wouldn’t be afraid of anything. He tried to do as much good in his life as he could.” … “During a bombing run in Europe, there were a bunch of German Messerschmidt planes attacking their airplane. He looked out and saw other planes coming their way, and it happened to be the Tuskegee Airmen, the all-black unit flying P-51s. Those airplanes diverted the Germans and saved Milliken’s airplane. Detroit Mayor Coleman Young was part of the Tuskegee air group (though he didn’t fly), and that created an immediate relationship between Milliken and Young, which would help Detroit and the Governor in many ways.”

Highlight reel: Testimonials about Governor Milliken and his legacy
As we honor the late Governor William G. Milliken with a public memorial at Interlochen Center for the Arts, FLOW compiled these video testimonials by those who knew Bill and Helen well. Listen to recollections by their son, Bill Milliken, Jr., NMEAC co-chair Ann Rogers, policy advisor Bill Rustem, biographer Dave Dempsey, FLOW Milliken policy interns Zoe Gum and Emma Moulton, Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservacy executive director Glen Chown, Traverse City mayor Jim Carruthers, special assistant Marc Oberschulte, and family friend, Dr. Terrie Taylor. Enjoy!

Earth Day Against the Backdrop of the Events of 1970

Organizers of the original Earth Day celebration at U-M reunite 50 years later. Photo courtesy of University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability

By Lana Pollack

Lana Pollack has served as President and CEO of the Michigan Environmental Council, U.S. Section Chair of the International Joint Commission, and a three-term state senator.

The first Earth Day celebration at University of Michigan did not wait until April 22, 1970, the date Wisconsin’s Senator Gaylord Nelson had set for environmental teach-ins across the country. In Ann Arbor, this history-changing observation blasted off March 11 when 15,000 people jammed U-M’s Crisler Arena, and thousands more crowded its parking lot. The four-day happening was sponsored by a new U-M organization, Environmental Action for Survival of the Planet (ENACT), and it was successful beyond the wildest dreams of its young organizers.

By the time this Earth Day precursor closed, 50,000 people had attended 125 events, virtually all of which had been amply covered by national press. Determined to be inclusive, ENACT’s organizers invited and accepted requests to speak from a dizzyingly diverse collection of high-profile individuals ranging from the avuncular Arthur Godfrey to the all-but nude cast of the musical Hair and top-of-the-charts singer Gordon Lightfoot. Headline environmentalist Barry Commoner was joined by Michigan’s Governor William Milliken, the University’s President Robben Fleming (exceptionally adept at avoiding conflict by giving voice to student concerns), the presidents of both Dow Chemical and the United Auto Workers, along with environmental leaders from around the country and of course Senator Gaylord Nelson. Almost every University School and department sponsored a workshop, lecture or symposium on environmental issues related to its discipline.

Not surprisingly, as U-M had been a focal point for many of the white-hot 1960s protests, this environmental happening did not want for a generous dose of zaniness mixed with serious social criticism. A blue Ford Mustang was put on trial in the center of campus. In spite of arguments energetically presented in defense of the accused car (the auto industry was the backbone of Michigan’s economy), the Mustang was found “guilty of murder of the American public.”  Its sentence was death by sledge hammers, with hundreds of observers cheering the executioners.

Somehow, I missed the car’s demise, the ceremonial dumping of thousands of non-recyclable coke cans, Gordon Lightfoot, the crowds in Crisler Arena and even the lectures and symposia in the School of Education where I attended classes and my four-year-old son, John, went to pre-school. 

How did I, a politically interested student who was on campus almost every day, miss out on this eclectic happening we now recognize as the kick-off of the modern environmental movement? Given my full-on commitment to environmental advocacy in the decades that followed, I’ve questioned why I was not an organizer, or at least a participant. In positing my answer, I have vivid memories of an overwhelmed young woman, determined to be a flawless supermom while completing her MA in Education and maintaining a household that showed not a speck of disorder. And all of this in an age when even the nicest of husbands (mine) felt their professional work excused them from sharing childcare responsibilities with their wives. 

But there was another reason I was MIA from Michigan’s original Earth Day, a reason I understand better years on in reading about a memorable session dubbed the Scream-Out. The Scream-Out was the platform for those who thought Gaylord Nelson was wrong in calling for a national day of environmental reflection. In preparing the multifaceted program, organizers had faced arguments that an active environmental movement would only distract from more pressing social injustices. Black student activists saw all that was lacking in commitment to ending campus racism. Just before the four-day, 50,000-person Earth Day teach-in, the U-M campus had been wrenched by a campus-wide strike led by the Black Action Movement (BAM). In a tense two-week stand-off, a large and growing number of professors and students (myself included) refused to cross picket lines in support of BAM’s demands to raise black student enrollment and increase successful minority engagement on campus.

Joined by frustrated anti-war protestors on a campus that fairly enough claimed to be the birthplace of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), it was not surprising that there were both black and white reformers who questioned the importance of Johnny-come-lately environmentalism. (At the time, just a few environmental activists and scholars were beginning to conceptualize environmental justice.) Although I did not consciously decide to boycott the environmental teach-in, I do recall thinking that both the women’s and the environmental movements were of less significance than fighting racism and the Viet Nam War. It was at the Scream-Out, had I attended it, that I would have heard a substantive discussion of my own poorly-formed concerns.

But I didn’t go. I had two small children to care for, MA degree assignments to be finished, and a broken refrigerator to be replaced at home. I could never have imagined in 1970 that both my husband and I would spend decades dedicating ourselves to advancing deeper environmental understandings and better environmental laws, no matter what other responsibilities we faced.

Ironically, my slow-off-the-blocks start as an environmentalist has made me a more effective advocate. Remembering how overwhelmed I felt then, toiling to manage multiple responsibilities, has prompted me to be more respectful when engaging with people struggling today to get on top of their own lives’ demands. And recalling that on Earth Day One I viewed environmental concerns as competitors with — rather than integral to — battles for social, economic and racial justice, prods me now to act more inclusively, recognizing that the fabric of a healthy planet and just society is woven from many threads.

Looking Back in Remembrance: Gov. William Milliken’s 98th Birthday

Today, March 26, would have been the 98th birthday of Michigan Governor William G. Milliken, whose leadership in the 1970s and 1980s put Michigan at the forefront of the 50 states in environmental protection. Born in Traverse City and raised close to Grand Traverse Bay, Milliken developed an early appreciation for Michigan’s majestic waters.

As Governor from 1969-1982, he advocated and signed into law the major statutes that are still the framework for Michigan environmental policy. A partial list includes the Michigan Environmental Protection Act, the Inland Lakes and Streams Act, the Natural Rivers Act, the Sand Dune Protection and Management Act, the bottle deposit law, what is now the Natural Resources Trust Fund, controls on sources of algae blooms in western Lake Erie, and the Wetland Protection Act.

When the Governor passed away last October, FLOW was honored to be named one of two nonprofit environmental organizations to be designated by his family to receive memorial contributions in his name. We continue to accept such donations and will carry on work in Governor Milliken’s name, focusing on protection of the Great Lakes, groundwater and drinking water for all.

To donate to FLOW in honor of Gov. Milliken, please click on our Donate page, fill out all required fields, and write “Governor Milliken” in the bottom field. Thank you.

To learn the full story of the Governor’s environmental leadership, read a tribute to his life and work by FLOW senior policy advisor and Milliken biographer Dave Dempsey.

The State of Governor Whitmer’s State of the State Message

By Dave Dempsey

Early in each new year, the Governor of Michigan sets forth a policy agenda for the Legislature and the state as a whole. This year, Governor Gretchen Whitmer delivers her State of the State message on the evening of Wednesday, January 29.

Whitmer will inevitably tackle roads, jobs, infrastructure, education, and Michigan’s economic prosperity, but the environment must be a key part of her speech.

Whitmer would do well to emulate her predecessor Gov. William Milliken, who 50 years ago gave a 1970 State of the State speech that fought environmental degradation and deregulation and called for dramatic changes in state policy to better protect the air, water, land, fish and wildlife. The 1970 legislative session resulted in the Michigan Environmental Protection Act, the Natural Rivers Act, the Great Lakes Shorelands Act and more.

Environmental, natural resources and public health policies are a critical part of Michigan’s policy needs. Governor Whitmer has an important opportunity to move the state forward by outlining bold steps for the state to take to assure safe and affordable drinking water for all; assure our water remains public and is not captured by private commercial interests for profit; protect rivers, lakes and habitat; and promote solutions to the climate crisis.

(Whitmer will appear on an even bigger stage on Tuesday, February 4, when she delivers a Democratic response to the State of the Union address.)

Here are issues for Michigan citizens to listen for that FLOW urges the Governor to cover in her State of the State message:

FLOW’s State of the State Agenda

FLOW believes the Governor should:

Bring Line 5 Pipelines Under the Rule of Law:

• Direct that Enbridge obtain authorization under the Great Lakes Submerged Lands Act (GLSLA) and public trust law for the new 2018 tunnel easement and long-term private control of the Straits of Mackinac for the tunnel and existing Line 5.

• Nullify, revoke, and/or terminate the 1953 easement to use the lakebed at the Straits under which Enbridge operates Line 5 for violation of public trust law, and the rule of law under the GLSLA.

Address the Climate Crisis:

• Issue an executive order setting state renewable energy and decarbonization targets and methods to achieve them.

• Direct a study of the future impacts of climate change to the Great Lakes, identifying measures to promote adaptation and resiliency.

Provide Safe, Clean, Affordable Water for All:

• Support legislation and policy that declares and protects the paramount public interest in the State’s water and the individual’s right and access to safe, clean, affordable water and prevents water shutoffs.

Stop Septic System Pollution:

• Call for the Legislature to enact a statewide sanitary code to protect the paramount public interest in groundwater and surface waters, setting environmentally protective standards for inspection and maintenance of on-site sewage (septic) systems.

Prevent Great Lakes Exports:

• As Chair of the Great Lakes Compact Council, call for revision of Compact procedures to prevent unlawful diversions and exports, and establish a framework to address impacts on waters of the Basin from the effects of climate change.

Invest in the Protection of State’s Water and Water Infrastructure:

• Support a funding mechanism or mechanisms, including conservation, efficiency, and innovative user fees, to close the huge gap between water infrastructure needs and available funds, and coordinate the funding mechanism with the right to water, health, and affordability.

Make Polluters Pay:

• Hold polluters rather than taxpayers accountable for contamination cleanup costs, and restore standards that require cleanup rather than containment of toxic pollutants from the waters of our State.

Dave Dempsey, FLOW’s senior policy adviser, wrote the award-winning biography William G. Milliken: Michigan’s Passionate Moderate (University of Michigan Press, 2006).

Delivering an Environmentally-strong State of the State—the Milliken Way

By Dave Dempsey

As the 1970s began, Michigan’s environment was scarred by decades of pollution and natural resource exploitation. But public opinion here, as across the nation, was crystallizing around dramatic changes in law and policy, making 1970 a milestone in United States environmental history.

Sensing the mood, Michigan Governor William Milliken outlined a sweeping attack on environmental degradation in both his annual State of the State address on January 15, 1970, and a special message to the Legislature solely on environmental issues, on January 22, 1970. “Milliken Urges War on Pollution,” read a Detroit Free Press headline.

Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s State of the State message on January 29 of this year—50 years later—provides an opportunity for her to follow in the Milliken tradition.

“We can’t have prosperity at the expense of posterity,” Milliken told the Legislature in January 1970. “And that is what we are doing—threatening posterity—when we make sewers of our rivers, cesspools of our lakes, and litter of our landscapes.”

Milliken’s proposals included several that became law later in 1970, and some that are still just proposals. The Legislature would approve Milliken’s proposals for a Great Lakes Shorelands act, tougher regulation of solid waste disposal, and more protective air and water pollution standards. Milliken’s call for tougher environmental enforcement instead of reliance on voluntary compliance by polluters was a change in state policy.

But the governor’s proposal to regulate what he called the “blight” of billboard pollution failed to get legislative approval.

Still. it was an auspicious beginning to a year of environmental change. And before it was over, the Legislature would send to Milliken a few historic ideas of its own.

Follow our year-long timeline in 2020 of the 50-year anniversary of the 1970 “Year of the Environment”.

Dave Dempsey, FLOW’s senior policy adviser, wrote the award-winning biography William G. Milliken: Michigan’s Passionate Moderate (University of Michigan Press, 2006).

A memorial service for Governor Milliken—who passed away on October 18, 2019—will be held in May 2020. The Milliken family has asked that donations in his memory and in support of his environmental legacy be made to FLOW and the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy.

When State Government Favored Environmental Regulations Over “Fries with that Permit”

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.

A Truly Golden Anniversary: 50 Years Since the Environmental Awakening of 1970

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.

In the minds of some who were present then, the most prominent environmental memory of 1970 is likely the first national observance of Earth Day, April 22—with Michigan out front on that one. In March 1970, students and faculty on the University of Michigan campus in Ann Arbor organized what they called an Environmental Teach-In. 

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:

  • January 1, 1970: the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) took effect.
  • January 1970: Michigan Governor William G. Milliken unveiled a broad agenda of proposed environmental reforms.
  • March 1970: The discovery of alarmingly high levels of toxic mercury temporarily shut down fishing in Lake St. Clair.
  • March 1970: Environmental Teach-In at U of M in Ann Arbor
  • April 22, 1970: Earth Day
  • July 27, 1970: The Michigan Environmental Protection Act (MEPA) took effect.
  • October 21, 1970: Legislation creating Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in northwest Lower Michigan took effect.
  • December 2, 1970: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was officially created.
  • December 3, 1970: The Michigan Natural Rivers Act took effect.
  • December 31, 1970: The U.S. Clean Air Act took effect.
  • 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.

If you are interested in submitting material, please contact us at info@flowforwater.org.

Dave Dempsey is FLOW’s senior policy advisor.

Dave Dempsey, Senior Advisor