The Man Who Biked to Work

The Love of Nature and Legacy of Governor William Milliken

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.”

3 comments on “The Man Who Biked to Work

  1. Kerry Alspaugh on

    Dear Mr. Jim Oleson,

    Thank you for this story. I appreciate your recap of the important events that happened in a time that I was not politically involved, as I wish I had been. Even though I didn’t initiate active involvement I was influenced by the wisdom of people like the Miiikens and voted accordingly. Jim Olsen, I am grateful for your experiences with Governor Milliken and very glad you wrote this tribute. It has shined a new light on how I will pay attention to what is important and what my role will be as we move forward. Thank you again.
    Kerry Alsaugh


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The Love of Nature and Legacy of Governor William Milliken