Environment Picture

Dave Dempsey: Author, historian, policy expert and steadfast defender of the Great Lakes

The sound was like thunder. Bass-heavy, ground-shaking booms at rhythmic intervals. It lured Dave Dempsey from his sleeping bag one fine summer day in 1981. What he found mesmerized him and forever guided his career path.

“It was a backpacking trip at the Pictured Rocks (in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula),” Dempsey recalled. “I got up before everyone else at the campsite. The waves were pounding against the base of the bluff. The view over Lake Superior, the waves, the rocks…I thought ‘I want to make sure people 500 years from now can have this same experience.’”

And so young Dave Dempsey set out to protect his Great Lakes. He became an environmentalist. And a conservationist. And an advisor to the governor. And historian. And author. And a policy advisor to Great Lakes governors and premiers. And a mentor. And…well, you get the picture.

That impactful body of work is why Dempsey is the 2013 recipient of the Michigan Environmental Council’s Helen & William Milliken Distinguished Service Award, bestowed annually on a person who has made extraordinary contributions to protect Michigan’s natural resources.

MEC President Chris Kolb said Dempsey has the rare ability to tear into the minutiae of complex environmental issues, while never losing sight of the important big picture.

“Dave Dempsey is the unique leader who is able to move effortlessly from talking about the arcane technical details of an issue, to explaining in vivid and powerful terms why that issue is so critical to the quality of life for the generations that come after us,” said Kolb. “Dave’s contributions through his public policy advocacy alone deserve our recognition and gratitude. However, when you add his authoritative chronicling of Michigan’s environmental history through his books, it’s clear he has made a special, positive, and lasting impact on our state.”

Early eye opener
Young Dempsey was living on $6,000 a year as a freelance writer when those Lake Superior waves altered the course of his life. Not long after that morning, a fledgling environmental coalition named the Michigan Environmental Council came calling, and Dempsey took the job. He dealt with lawmakers, sat through committee hearings and testified for and against the environmental bills of the day.

“It was a quick eye opener,” Dempsey recalls. “I was so idealistic and naïve. It surprised me that so many lawmakers were just simply not interested.”

Meanwhile, Governor James Blanchard was under attack by conservationists who were upset with his administration’s seeming indifference to Michigan’s natural resources. The governor needed direction, and in July of 1983 he called on young Dempsey.

For the next six years, Dempsey guided Blanchard’s environmental policy, starting the state’s “first real toxic cleanup program,” helping establish protections from Great Lakes diversions through the Great Lakes Charter of 1985, and navigating the turbulent waters at the intersection of politics and policy.

Gov. Blanchard said Dempsey’s guidance was invaluable, and continues to be: “For several decades, Dave Dempsey has been a dedicated advocate for Michigan’s environment and for strong environmental protection laws. From negotiating our Great Lakes Charter, to becoming an accomplished author, Dave has been a wonderful steward of our great natural heritage.”

Dempsey is pleased he made a difference. But he is no longer naïve enough to believe it’s permanent: “A lot of the significant things we did back then are now under attack. Like the Sand Dune Conservation Act. It’s a reminder that there are very few permanent victories in conservation.”

Move to Minnesota
Dempsey was out of a job after Blanchard was defeated by Gov. John Engler in 1990, but quickly was hired to lead Clean Water Action’s Michigan chapter. In 1994, he rejoined MEC as policy director where he stayed for a decade.

In 2004, he moved to Minnesota where he freelanced and worked for Conservation Minnesota. He married Jennifer Morris in 2008, and lives with her in Rosemount, MN. He has two stepchildren, Caroline, 16, and Katie, 21.

In 2010, he was tapped by Lana Pollack, U.S. chair of the International Joint Commission (IJC), to be a policy advisor on all things Great Lakes. It was a reunion—Dempsey and Pollack had worked together while Pollack ran MEC from 1996 through 2008.

Under a 1909 treaty, the IJC regulates shared water uses between the U.S. and Canada, and recommends solutions and policy changes to protect those waters. It has special responsibilities under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, last updated in 2012, to assess the progress of the two nations in protecting the Lakes.

It was while Dempsey was at MEC that he wrote the first of his eight books: Ruin & Recovery: Michigan’s Rise as a Conservation Leader, published in 2001.

Dempsey said he wrote the book to “restore my idealism” during a period where Gov. John Engler rolled back and weakened many of the environmental protections of the previous two governors—William Milliken and Blanchard.

Seven books followed (see sidebar). They include more keen historical analysis of Michigan’s environmental history, a photography book, a biography of Gov. Milliken and a fictional Great Lakes thriller.

The historical books contain a common lesson. “Ruin and recovery come in cycles,” Dempsey explains. “When it appears lawmakers are unwilling to do the right thing, people must stay strong and organize. There is always support for good environmental policy.”

Dempsey is part curmudgeon, part Pollyanna. With no apologies: “I’m still idealistic enough to believe one or two people can make a big difference. And that keeps me going.”
-Hugh McDiarmid
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