Governor Milliken's Environmental Legacy

In April 2006, respected Great Lakes conservationist, policy analyst and author Dave Dempsey released his latest book, William G. Milliken: Michigan’s Passionate Moderate. We spoke with Dempsey about the former governor’s environmental legacy.

With Governor Milliken’s rich legacy, how did you focus the book?Most broadly the book is about the public career of Governor Milliken, but more specifically it’s about how a place called Traverse City shaped his views and values during that career. It’s as much a biography about Northwest Michigan and Traverse City, because the place is a major character of the book. His retreats to the Grand Traverse Bay, to Old Mission Peninsula, are key features of the book.

What are Governor Milliken’s most lasting environmental achievements?One is symbolic, the bottle deposit law. The bill had stalled several times in the legislature, and it took great courage to defy the legislature and be the first citizen to put his name on the ballot initiative. He knew he could trust the people to put it into law. Today Michigan has the highest bottle redemption rate of all states.

But his most important accomplishment is his work on water, particularly his strong support of phosphorous reduction in the 70’s. Because of excessive phosphorous from laundry soap, Lake Erie was essentially a dead lake and the entire lower Great Lakes were dead to recreation values. Again, Milliken bucked a strong lobby. Amway had a high phosphorous detergent and didn’t want to reformulate it. An Amway official was a member of the Water Resources Board, so to pass the rulemaking, Milliken transferred the authority to another department where he knew it would be supported.

Was it easier to be a pro-environment politician back when Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River was on fire and New York’s Love Canal resulted in hazardous waste pushing up through the soil on a school playground and in backyards?It’s true that today we have more slow motion environmental disasters — climate change, habitat loss. But even so, it wasn’t easy back then. There was a lot of backlash from business throughout the 70’s against Milliken principles. He sent the message to state agencies that he wanted them to rule. Howard Tanner, Milliken’s Department of Natural Resources chief, told me that Milliken encouraged him to be strong on the side of the environment. Tanner espoused erring on the side of the environment. Today, employees of the DNR and Department of Environmental Quality are told to be referees instead of advocates. That has corrupted environmental protection. We already have an agency that advocates for business. The DNR and DEQ are supposed to enforce the laws.

Today, environmental protection is a core value among voters, but unfortunately it is not a decisive issue for choosing a candidate. But still, water especially is something that Michigan values and treasures. It’s not surprising that Milliken, looking over West Bay from his house, would espouse protection for that.

How much of what Governor Milliken achieved environmentally has been eroded by subsequent legislative action?A lot of the agency structures and particular rules and fine print from that era have changed. But the most important things that he advocated for and got into law remain. The Wetlands Act, the Michigan Environmental Protection Act; there is a litany of environmental laws he signed.

It’s similar to what you see at the national level as well. People are not successful in repealing, say, the Clean Water Act, so they affect it through rulemakings. But if the laws stand, when strong leaders return, they can enforce the laws again. When Engler was in power, the environmental laws were like a strong building that withstood a storm. The storm passes and you can repair the damage.In the book, Governor Milliken makes the point that Republicanism in the recent past stood for something different from today, and it included a strong conservation ethic. Teddy Roosevelt was a strong environmentalist. He points out that the environment can be a winning issue for Republicans, not something they need to bash.

Jeff Smith is editor of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine.[email protected]

Note: This article was first published in July 2006 and was updated for the web February 2008.

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