Environment Picture

President's Column: Passion to protect Michigan’s natural resources stoked from a young age for awardees, and for kindred spirits at Michigan Environmental Council

Each year the Michigan Environmental Council honors a pair of outstanding environmental leaders by awarding the Helen and William G. Milliken Distinguished Service Award and the Petoskey Prize for Environmental Leadership. Once again, we have two great honorees: Becky Humphries and Ken Smith, respectively.

Passion drives the work and careers of these committed environmental heroes, both of whom are profiled in this edition of our newsletter.

Becky Humphries’ love for the outdoors was nurtured by her father on hunting and fishing outings in the splendor of Michigan’s woods. She rose through the ranks to become the first female director of the state’s Department of Natural Resources.

Ken Smith’s adopted home of Traverse City was threatened by developers and “good old boy” politicians making short-sighted decisions with long-term consequences. That fueled his passion to come up with a better, community-based vision for the Cherry Republic region of northern Michigan.

The ceremonies in which we present the awards to these winners is always a special event for our staff. The energy in the room is evident, and I think I know why.

The MEC staff is—despite its reputation for pragmatism and level-headedness—as intensely passionate about Michigan as our awardees. They are kindred spirits.

Each one of MEC’s staff is driven by an intense experience or series of experiences with Michigan’s natural resources early in life. And each staffer has a memory—or series of memories—that drives their passion to protect Michigan.

Spend some time around the MEC office and you’ll quickly discover where that passion comes from and why they work tirelessly to protect the health of our environment.

You’ll learn that for some, it was adventures in nature-based summer camps on storied Michigan lakes like Torch Lake and Burt Lake. For another, it was the initial awe upon seeing the magnificence of the Great Lakes for the first time—waters that define us as a state and people and awaken our realization of our special place on the planet. Defending those waters from degradation and diversion isn’t just a policy position for these people—it is a calling.

For some, the passion is fueled by their love of their hometown—urban areas where environment, health and quality of life interact. In those neighborhoods, nature has too often been paved over, cut down or parceled off. Fresh air and fresh food are often scarce in those settings, but passion is not. MEC has joined with neighbors and community activists to ensure that every child and family has access to clean air, water and land regardless of where they live or who they are.

For one person, it was the sight of the few remaining virgin old-growth white pine trees in places like Hartwick Pines State Park and the Porcupine Mountains. They are reminders of what Michigan lost with unregulated clear cutting. And a reminder of what we can restore in select places should MEC and its allies succeed in restoring an environmental ethic to policy decisions.

Another staffer came in search of Ernest Hemingway’s Michigan, found it, loved it, and ended up vowing to help perpetuate it by working for a feisty nonprofit in Lansing.

For all of us though, it is our connection to the outdoors that makes us fight to protect the fauna and flora of Michigan. It is cold water streams where we learned to fly fish with our dads, the woods where we first discovered the animals of the wild, and sometimes our own backyard camping trips with families and friends. It is the majestic bald eagles saved from extinction by the banning of DDT; the jackpine warblers and their dependence on fire ecology; the bears, deer and moose of the northern woods; the wolves of Isle Royale; and the special and rare plants that evolved to exist on the great dunes of Lake Michigan.

Personally, I remember the lessons I learned in grade school summer programs in Ann Arbor with Bill Stapp and Bill Browning when environmental education was just emerging as a new field. I also recall my early college days and my first exposure to the growing environmental movement and the fights to limit drilling in the Pigeon River.

I remember an emerging and disturbing theory on the warming of the earth, lectures by the authors of Limits to Growth, field trips to see firsthand how environmental issues played out in the real world, and a spring semester spent studying in the Upper Peninsula that helped awaken me to the wonders of the great wilderness of Michigan.

For me and the rest of MEC’s staff, it was parents, teachers, camp counselors and neighbors who opened our eyes to the wonders and fragility of our environment. It will be as parents, teachers, counselors and activists that we will inspire the next generation of environmental leaders.

As I salute our award winners, Becky and Ken, I also salute the everyday warriors of MEC, the men and women whose passions inspire and awe me every single day.
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