Admiring Gov. Milliken’s environmental legacy as he turns 94

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.

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ann roger
Thu, 03/24/2016 - 10:04am
Dave thank you. This is a beautiful tribute to somone we all admire ! If he were in office today we wouldn't have EM's acting as dictators. We would have real leadership in bring everyone together to solve problems. peace ann
Bill Helwig
Thu, 03/24/2016 - 10:05am
Not enough praise can be given to a man whose service to the citizens of Michigan included the aforementioned leadership. Those of us who were fortunate enough to have seen his impact while he was in office will always remember his ability to promote, protect and preserve our beautiful state. It is amazing what a committed public servant can accomplish when done in the best interests of future generations.
Julie Weeks
Thu, 03/24/2016 - 10:33am
I count myself very lucky as someone who gained political awareness watching his honest, engaging and inclusive mode of governing and leading. It instilled in me a desire to work toward making the world a better place, which is indeed harder these days amidst all of the rancor and vitriol.
Gene Jenneman
Thu, 03/24/2016 - 10:35am
Happy Birthday Governor!! How desperately we need leaders in our politics and government of the caliber of this great man who would conduct themselves with the same grace, dignity, and vision he did and continues to do, without the ideological rancor that so often keeps us from doing the best we could for our state, our nation and its people.
Greg Reisig
Thu, 03/24/2016 - 10:39am
Dave: Thank you so much for this wonderful column celebrating the work of Gov. Milliken. Our state is in need of someone like the Governor right now as we face many tough environmental issues. The Governor's work and example is something to celebrate every single day.
Thu, 03/24/2016 - 10:41am
Thanking you for your advocacy and foresight for Michigan. That's where true Pure Michigan began. Hopefully we never forget how fragile our natural gifts are. Wishing you a happy birthday...though you gave us the gifts!
Thu, 03/24/2016 - 10:50am
I was one who took shots at Gov. Milliken over the PBB issue. He was in charge and got tarred with the brush better left to underlings. Since that time I've come to appreciate just how much he'd done and how much worse things could become when his successor John Engler tried to dismantle his legacy. The latter's prime environmental contribution was the creation of MDEQ which has from the beginning been a tool for injuring the environment under a gloss of "Quality". Governor Milliken truly deserves his high place in Michigan history. Happy Birthday and many happy returns of the day!
Thu, 03/24/2016 - 10:59am
Governor Milliken has been a great public servant and a great person. But Governor Milliken should apologize for using his good name and reputation to support the reelection of Michigan's worst governor ever who he shares no values with---Rick Sndyer. Gov Milliken and Gov Snyder are diametrically opposed on EVERY policy issue whether it environmental protection, civil rights, responsible budgeting, public education, etc.
Thu, 03/24/2016 - 11:04am
Thanks to Bridge and Dave Dempsey for this timely and thoughtful piece. Happy Birthday Governor Milliken!
Tom Rohrer
Thu, 03/24/2016 - 12:44pm
Dave: Thanks for this terrific article. Governor Milliken is an amazing statesman and a will always be known for protecting the environmental, especially his beloved Great Lakes. Cheers, Tom Rohrer @ CMU
Thu, 03/24/2016 - 1:05pm
Thanks, Dave for your comprehensive article on this good man. Our family has known the Millikens since forever, and the article speaks well of his thoughtful dedication of our natural resources. He is a WWII veteran, a businessman, and best of all, an honest and fair man to many...
Loraine Anderson
Thu, 03/24/2016 - 1:12pm
Thanks, Dave, for this beautiful and timely tribute to Bill and Helen and their environmental impact. He and Helen have been such great stewards and leaders for Michigan. Many happy birthday wishes to Gov. Milliken!
Thu, 03/24/2016 - 1:39pm
I came of age under Bill Milliken and have tried to emulate him in expanding environmental awareness. Thank you Governor Bill for you legacy, and Happy birthday. Unfortunately his like has disappeared on the Michigan stage and the latest iteration of Republicans has worked diligently to dismantle everything he accomplished. I was proud to call myself a Milliken Republican. I have not voted for a Republican legislator or governor since John Engler betrayed me in his fist term.
Lauren Hucek
Thu, 03/24/2016 - 1:53pm
Thank you Dave Dempsey and Bridge for celebrating the great environmental work championed by Gov. Milliken.
Dave Smethurst
Thu, 03/24/2016 - 3:12pm
Bill Milliken was critical in our fight to protect the Pigeon River Country. I remember taking a hike thru the forest with the Governor and his wife Helen. Best Governor I've ever experienced, in so many areas.
Thu, 03/24/2016 - 4:38pm
Why is it so hard for current GOP governors in a bunch of states to act in the best interest of the people, to use science and educated people to make conditions better, to conserve our resources and land for future generations, and to act responsibly on important issues? It's as if they have learned nothing at all from people like Milliken. Of course, I know the answer is governing to an ideology that has been proven to be empty of spirit, no empathy, and sale to the highest bidder. Politicians like Milliken had a sense of duty as to what was the right thing to do, and even in the face of the mighty Van Andel, knew that we were better off without the Phosphorus. Today, lobbyists would be paying off the state senate to do their bidding. The fact that we have these wonderful natural areas and bottle-return bill, etc., are proof that at one time the GOP was CONSERVING our heritage. Such values should not be those of any one party, but of all people that care about the world we live in.
Thu, 03/24/2016 - 4:42pm
Thank you Dave, for once again reminding us how much we miss Governor Milliken. I was so very lucky to have served the state with his support. His honesty, true leadership and humanity were just a few of the characteristics he has that mentored many of us. I cannot look at the beauty of this state without thinking, thank you, Governor Bill and Helen, for protecting so much of it. Happy Birthday Governor, thank you for still being that mentor.
Sharon Popp
Thu, 03/24/2016 - 8:39pm
I also want to say thank you for reminding Michiganians what good governance looks like-The only time I ever voted Republican was for Bill Millikin. I'd do it again if someone with his integrity were running.
Thu, 03/24/2016 - 9:24pm
Proud to have been a Milliken appointee. Was talking about him and Jack Dempsey just last Saturday with a group of food/nutrition advocates from the mid-70s, early 80s. Even when Gerald Ford was in the White House and some were concerned that if Michigan challenged a federal proposal it could have negative political repercussions. Milliken's response: We are going with policy, not politics and added Michigan to the list of challengers.
Frank Wilhelme
Thu, 03/24/2016 - 11:36pm
Several years ago I had reason to call Helen Milliken. I was surprised to have the governor answer the phone. We had a nice chat that included sharing memories of mutual friends. As we were wrapping up I mentioned that my father who was a straight ticket Democrat voted for him that last time he ran for governor. He was clearly delighted stating I had made his day. Happy birthday, Governor Milliken!
Fri, 03/25/2016 - 7:37am
Thank you for mentioning the PBB Disaster of the early 1970s. Those of us from St. Louis, Michigan who are still trying to clean up the contamination from the PBB incident, and to gain health studies for the workers and families most highly exposed, often feel invisible.
Tim Knowlton
Fri, 03/25/2016 - 8:05am
Well done, Dave. Thank you for reminding me what authentic leadership looks like.
Marcus Cheatham
Fri, 03/25/2016 - 8:07am
Another Milliken legacy is Michigan's public health code of 1978. At the time it was created there was bi-partisan support for a comprehensive, progressive public health law. Lawmakers and citizens of all political persuasions worked for two years on four committee's to craft the law and it became a model for the nation. The law is still on the books but many parts of it are ignored now. IF we had been following the law the switch to Flint River water would have been thoroughly researched from the point of view of health, and it never would have happened.
Dorothy Simon-Tibbe
Fri, 03/25/2016 - 9:59am
Barton, the article on former Gov. Milliken is really well written, and deeply researched for details! Excellent! I am a Traverse City area product myself, so knew the Milliken family. Happy 94th birthday to a great man. We need the pride he had for our State and Country. The booklet about Grand River's deep pollution and restoring is a great resource on EPA too.
Autumn Sousanis
Fri, 03/25/2016 - 2:42pm
Wonderful tribute to a wonderful human being. Governor Milliken! You met my mom during your term in office at the State Fair, and you awarded her the treasured "Homemaker of the Year" award. You and she laughed and laughed during the presentation and your spirit shone so warm and true, she always talked about how genuine you were and how clearly you loved to laugh just as much as she did and how you clearly loved people and had values we could respect and admire. You honored us and our state, and, I now see, this precious planet. Thank you. You are a shining light.
Dr. Howard Tanner
Fri, 03/25/2016 - 5:21pm
First and foremost – – thank you Dave for giving me the opportunity to wish Gov. Milliken a happy birthday. I have many good memories, the many solid achievements in the areas of environmental protection, the cleanup of serious waste problems, and the professional management of our lands and waters that were achieved under your leadership. I think most of us, most of the time assumed that the Governors that followed you would be similar, similar in courage, leadership and dedication. How wrong we were. Gov. Engler managed in a very short time to dismantle Michigan’s abilities to manage our environment and public resources for the good of the people. Under your leadership and that of Gov. George Romney a governmental structure brought to the natural resource and environmental areas of our government several commissions and boards of dedicated citizens were other citizens could participate in the development of Michigan’s policies. All of this destroyed by anger and long gone. Beginning today the people of Michigan, in the wake of the Flint debacle, must begin the task to restore those opportunities for public review and input that were so much a part of good government. Again a great – – happy birthday and many more – – Howard Tanner
Mark Van Putten
Fri, 03/25/2016 - 7:08pm
Dave, a well-written and well-deserved tribute to an extraordinary leader who has been an inspiration to me throughout my career.
Sat, 03/26/2016 - 8:53am
In 1969, my 4th grade class held bake sales and bottle drives to raise money to stop pollution. We raised something like, $54.14 for the school year, usually 2cents at a time. We took the money to Lansing and were to give it to governor Milliken. Unfortunately, he was unable to meet. The following fall in 5th grade, I looked out of the window and couple of state police cars and another vehicle pull into the parking lot. As the kids line up by the window, governor Milliken stepped out of the vehicle. We had a surprise assembly where the governor shared with us what the state bought with our money... It was a dredge about the size of a shovel attached to a rope to use to scoop up samples of Great Lakes sediment. (I was a bit disappointed that all that money bought so little.). Thank you governor Milliken and Mrs. Brown 4th grade teacher at Hamburg elementary for that memory!
Susan Henry Rob...
Mon, 03/28/2016 - 8:14pm
Than you Dave for reminding the people of Michigan what a treasure we had in Governor Milliken and what a real leader, conservationist and champion for the common good he was and is. Happy Birthday to the best.
Mon, 04/04/2016 - 9:46am
Wonderful tribute! Perhaps this should be forwarded to all politicians currently holding office here in Michigan as a reminder that whether Democrat or Republican doesn't really matter to the rest of us... what they do to preserve, protect and act as our voice, does. Not enough of our State population today is concerned with the future of our natural resources, or in keeping the balance between nature and mankind. In the end, it's not about the money... it's about the legacy each generation leaves behind.
Thu, 04/07/2016 - 5:56pm
Dave, thank you. As a young boy growing up close to Traverse City, I can still see Governor Milliken riding his bike into Traverse City for work from he and Helen's Peninsula Drive home. Every time I'd see him biking or walking, I was amazed that other than us boys and young girls pedaling around Traverse on one-speeds and later 3-speeds, there was Mr. Milliken, later Senator Milliken, and then Governor Milliken. Later as a young lawyer, I watched again, this time witnessing the things you describe so well in your tribute-- it is accurate and honorable of one of our most honorable leaders of preserving natural values in our State's and Great Lakes region's history.
Patrick McLean
Sun, 03/26/2017 - 4:25pm

Great article about a great Michigander. Also good to see Dave Dempsey in print again here in Michigan. Dave may be too modest, but back in 2006 he wrote a solid biography of Gov. Milliken. I used it in my political science class a few times to show students that Democrats and Republicans really can work together, and to remind them that conservation and conservative have the same root word. I hope Dave won't mind my giving him a plug.