Environment Picture

New DEQ chief Dan Wyant: Looking to economic gardening to grow, protect Michigan

Dan Wyant
As a boy, Dan Wyant used to stop traffic on US-131 near Schoolcraft to let his grandfather’s 20 head of dairy cows march across the highway to be milked.

Times and technology changed. Today, Wyant directs the state agency that oversees enforcement of pollution laws—including laws regulating huge factory farms that house thousands of cattle and produce waste equivalent to a medium-sized city.

 It ain’t his grandfather’s dairy farm. And it ain’t his grandfather’s Michigan anymore.

Wyant, 51, knows he is on the hot seat as Governor Rick Snyder’s director of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). He must simultaneously protect the state’s natural resources and aid Snyder in fostering a renaissance of economic development in Michigan. He doesn’t think the two are mutually exclusive—in fact, he believes they are dependant on each other.

“We need to recognize the broader quality of life focus. We have 20 percent of the world’s fresh (surface) water, 19 million acres of forested land, 10 million acres of farmland. These natural assets are fundamental to Michigan’s success. We can have resource protection and have the DEQ be a full partner in economic growth.”

Central to that strategy is fostering an economic development model that assists Michigan’s small and medium-sized businesses to grow and expand. Dubbed “economic gardening,” this model is a departure from past practices that often focus on tax breaks, financial incentives and special infrastructure improvements to lure huge out-of-state firms or manufacturers to Michigan.

Wyant said economic gardening rewards existing Michigan businesses, reduces taxpayer subsidies like tax breaks, and helps create a more diverse and flexible economic base. It also relies on preserving and enhancing the state’s quality of life—including its spectacular natural resources, which are primary drivers for workers and employers deciding where to locate or expand.

“This second-stage growth represents 37 percent of new job growth,” said Wyant. “It’s growing your own entrepreneurs.”

The learning curve at the DEQ will be steep for Wyant, but an easier climb thanks to the nine years he spent at the helm of the state’s Department of Agriculture under governors Engler and Granholm.

He acknowledges the issues faced by DEQ staff are more complex and diverse than those at the Agriculture Department. He said he favors approaches that provide incentives to companies to reduce their pollution voluntarily. But he won’t hesitate to support DEQ staff when they administer the law.

“It’s important for me to defend staff, and for them to hear that from me,” Wyant said.

During a wide ranging interview, Wyant addressed several specific topics:
  • Regarding enforcement of pollution laws against concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs, or factory farms) Wyant said he supports voluntary incentive programs, but “we are not going to turn the clock back on CAFO regulation.” He said the DEQ’s enforcement actions against the Vreba-Hoff Dairy have been “appropriate.”
  • Regarding diminished funding for environmental enforcement: “I’m open to opportunities to look at dedicated resources,” including “fee-based inspection programs.”
  • On climate change: “Clearly the science supports” the theory that manmade greenhouse gas emissions contribute to changing the climate, “and clearly the goal should be reducing emissions” as well as “mitigation and adaptation.”
  • On the possibility of new coal plants, Wyant said the state’s energy policy “will come from the governor’s office,” and Wyant’s DEQ will follow Snyder’s lead.
  • On a new wave of more intensive natural gas exploration, including expanded types of underground hydraulic fracturing (fracking): “We need to be proactive and bring the best minds to the table” to determine whether the state’s laws protect the environment from dangerous fracking chemicals. “There is a potential for significant degradation there.”
  •  On his background: He most recently was president and CEO of the Cassopolis-based Edward Lowe Foundation, which seeks to promote entrepreneurship and help second-stage companies accelerate growth. The foundation practices environmental conservation on its properties, and the economic gardening principles of growth with its clients.
  • On what he does in his spare time: He runs the Lansing half-marathon every year, hunts and fly fishes.
  •  On family: He is married to wife Kathy, who works for Sparrow Physicians Health Network in Lansing. They have two adult children: Monica, 26, works as the deputy White House liaison for the U.S. Department of Agriculture in the Obama Administration. Son Jordan, 22, just graduated from the University of Michigan and is a writer. 
-This is an edited version of a story that appeared in the Michigan Environmental Report online newsletter. To subscribe to our e-newsletter, or to receive the newsletter electronically, please e-mail hugh@environmentalcouncil.org.
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