Lost in the historical memory of the late 1960s and early 1970s firestorm over Vietnam policy, America’s simultaneous environmental reform age healed rather than wounded. The times and a man formed a confluence that for years placed Michigan in the top rank of states in protecting air, water, land and human health. As that man, Republican Gov. William G. Milliken turns 94 on Saturday (March 26), his green legacy looms ever larger.
Like most people who are moved to advocate for conservation, Milliken forged an affectionate relationship with nature in his childhood. Growing up in Traverse City and spending summer days at a family cottage near Acme, the future governor was sensitive to the abundant waters and woods of the region.
By the time he ascended to the governorship in January 1969, public outrage about ever worsening pollution was nearing a peak. In June of that year, Ohio’s Cuyahoga River briefly caught fire, symbolizing America’s callous treatment of its water resources.
Michigan was far from immune to pollution problems. Black plumes of smoke were a typical sight in the state’s industrial cities, especially downriver Detroit. The Rouge River in Dearborn was often orange or black with wastes dumped by Ford Motor Company, and hundreds of miles of Lake Michigan swimming beaches were considered unfit for public use at times because of high bacteria counts. In April 1969, under public pressure, the state Department of Agriculture banned most uses of the toxic pesticide DDT.
Against this backdrop, Milliken declared war on pollution. 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 to prevent or halt pollution, impairment or destruction of natural resources, the law had national significance and was imitated in many states.
Although Milliken was in part responding to popular demand for environmental cleanup and goosing his approval ratings, a core of principle also determined his policies. Two cases illuminate the point. In 1976, he defied Amway Corporation 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. Detergent makers detested the regulation but reduction of the nutrient almost immediately shrank algal blooms in Michigan waters.
In the second case, courted by lobbyists for beer and soda pop makers, the legislature deadlocked on a proposal to assign a deposit to some beverage containers. Convinced the law would reduce litter and promote recycling, Milliken joined forces with the Michigan United Conservation Clubs (MUCC) to put the proposed container deposit law on the 1976 ballot. His was the first signature on a referendum petition, and he lent environmental aide Bill Rustem to the ballot proposal campaign. 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.
The closest thing to a Flint-style catastrophe during the Milliken years followed the accidental introduction in 1973 of the toxic flame retardant PBB into cattle feed and eventually into meat, milk and other foods consumed by Michiganders. The Michigan Farm Bureau and state Department of Agriculture (MDA) denied and dissembled, fueling public fears about a coverup of severe human health risks.
Milliken took some of the rap for trusting MDA’s early assurances that the problem was overblown. In fact, while PBB exposure did not trigger the feared massive cancer outbreak among the public at large, studies have linked it to breast and digestive cancer, thyroid issues and reproductive effects in the first and second generations of affected farm families.
The most eloquent summation of the Milliken environmental philosophy came more than 15 years after he left office, at an MUCC banquet. “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.”
Understanding what a Republican governor who left office 33 years ago did that still benefits citizens who may never have heard of him is important. It serves as a reminder first, that there was a time when Republicans were environmental leaders and, second, that a politician’s deeply held values, coupled with the tenor of the times, can lead to profound and lasting change.