Environment Picture

Petoskey Prize recipient Bill Craig: ‘Long and difficult doesn’t matter’

Bill Craig
“This was all woods,” says Bill Craig, sweeping his arm across a scene of suburban sprawl in Westland, Michigan.

Craig grew up not far from here, in Garden City. When he was a boy his parents would drop him and his two younger brothers off at the forest’s edge with peanut butter sandwiches and apples. “I had some great adventures that way,” he says. “That was the Huckleberry Finn part of my life.”

Only a ribbon of those woods remains—the 500-plus-acre William P. Holliday Forest and Wildlife Preserve—but Craig still roams there whenever he can. For 25 years he has served as volunteer president of the Holliday Nature Preserve Association (HNPA).

From guiding nature hikes and drafting newsletters to recruiting members and leading the never-ending battle against invasive species, HNPA president is a big job. But it’s only one segment of a broader career of exceptional volunteerism. Just as many tributaries make up the Rouge River he has worked hard to restore, Craig’s many roles—advisory committee member, educator, cleanup coordinator and more—flow together into a body of work that has carved an indelible imprint on the environment of southeast Michigan.

A real go-getter
Located in the shadow of Best Buy, Office Max and other big-box retailers, the Holliday Preserve is a rare zone of wildness in the suburbs of western Wayne County. Same goes for the yard at Craig’s Livonia home. Among his neighbors’ well-groomed bluegrass and fescue, he has cultivated an oasis of native vegetation and wildlife habitat on property he recently shared with a pair of nesting screech owls.

With his “Trees are the answer” bumper sticker and an epic beard John Muir would envy, Craig himself stands out in a crowd. He joined the Navy after high school and served three tours in the engine room of an aircraft carrier in the Vietnam War. He continued working on boilers for the Detroit Edison Company (now DTE Energy), in hospitals and at Detroit Metro Airport, from which he retired in 2003.

The cause that launched Craig’s environmental career was a dispute over a proposal from Westland and Wayne County officials to develop a golf course on part of the Holliday Preserve. In 1987 he saw a notice in the newspaper about a gathering of those opposed to the development. “I showed up at that meeting and I’ve been with them ever since,” he says.

Rallying birdwatchers, biologists and other community members concerned about losing part of the sanctuary, the activists generated substantial local media coverage, and eventually scuttled the golf course proposal.

When the controversy was over, Craig and other advocates made a point of patching things up with the local officials who had backed the proposal. Those repaired relationships were instrumental in launching educational programs, trail improvements and other projects in the preserve.

“If you’re going to protect something from development, you need to engage the surrounding communities,” Craig says. “You can disagree with people, but you have to be able to work with them. Some people have different values. Not good or bad, just different.”

Recognizing that similar proposals could easily emerge in the future, the informal group decided to organize more officially, and HNPA was born. Local environmentalist Jack Smiley, who had organized the group’s meetings, was elected its first president, soon followed by local high school biology teacher John Covert. Craig was named president in the group’s third year and has held the post ever since.

“He’s been the driving force in all that time,” says Smiley. “Quickly it became apparent that he was a real go-getter, and he got a lot of things done. He’s a tremendous organizer.”

Rescuing the Rouge
The Holliday Preserve lines the banks of two Rouge River tributaries—Tonquish Creek and Morgan Creek—so it was perhaps inevitable that Craig would be drawn into the decades-long effort to restore the Rouge, Michigan’s most developed watershed.

“He’s made such a huge difference for the Rouge River,” says Sally Petrella, volunteer monitoring program manager for Friends of the Rouge (FOTR), a local stewardship group that honored Craig in 1996 with a Best Friend of the Rouge award. “He’s very enthusiastic and very patient. He works at so many different levels, from working with volunteers to talking with public officials, which makes him a well-rounded and effective volunteer.”

(Case in point: Morgan Creek was formerly Morgan Drain. Deciding residents were unlikely to care for something called a drain, Craig resolved to get the name changed. He tracked down every landowner in the drainage and spent countless hours gaining their consent for the change. It became Morgan Creek in 1997.)

The Rouge is rare among the 43 toxic hotspots designated by the EPA as Great Lakes Areas of Concern (AOC) in that the AOC boundary includes the entire watershed. From habitat loss to nutrient pollution and restrictions on eating its fish, the river has a long way to go before it can be taken off the list of AOCs.

Still, recent years have brought meaningful progress. Water quality is improving, bacteria levels are down and more people are using the river for recreation. And Craig has played a big part. Much of his work has been under the banner of the Rouge River Advisory Council, the local stakeholder panel convened by the Department of Environmental Quality to assist with restoring the watershed. Craig chaired the group for six years and was its vice chair for ten years. He also chaired the council’s habitat committee, on which he still serves. And he represents the Rouge watershed on the Statewide Public Advisory Council, which facilitates public input on all 12 of Michigan’s AOCs.

Craig also has had a big impact as a volunteer with FOTR. Since 1988 he has helped organize the Holliday Preserve cleanup site for Rouge Rescue, an annual FOTR volunteer event at dozens of sites in the watershed.

“I’m kind of a bossy guy,” Craig says, but he leads by example, cutting stubborn, invasive honeysuckle, and wading into Tonquish and Morgan creeks to remove trash and manage logjams.

Wood is good
For many years removing logjams was a key Rouge Rescue activity. Craig said volunteers always got a lot of satisfaction from clearing the obstructions, which collected garbage and possibly impeded flow. “There’s something disorderly-looking about a logjam,” he says. “There’s the chaos of wood.”

After a meeting one day 15 years ago, a Department of Environmental Quality scientist told Craig that logs and branches are important components of healthy streams that help control erosion and create wildlife habitat.

“That was a slap in the face,” he says. “We’re trying to take care of a nature preserve, and you’re telling me what we’re doing isn’t good for nature?”

Craig began doing research on the right way to handle logjams—or woody debris, the term he now uses. He found lots of technical and scientific reports, but there was little information on what citizen volunteers should or should not do.

“There really wasn’t much to go on, so he developed a lot of the thinking about how to manage wood in the river,” says Petrella.

Craig helped create guidelines for when to remove, move or even add wood to maintain a healthy stream environment. As he shared his findings with landowners and volunteers, the ideas spread and fundamentally transformed stream management throughout the Rouge watershed and beyond. A publication on woody debris management that Craig helped author is now used in watersheds across Michigan, and the guidelines are even used by the DEQ.

Ever-humble, Craig calls his leadership on woody debris management for volunteers “the one thing I could take credit for without robbing someone else.”

So connected
On the rare occasion he takes a break, Craig likes to spend time exploring the Upper Peninsula. He also hikes in the Grand Canyon every other year, a tradition inspired by a 1981 rafting trip there that helped to inspire his interest in protecting the environment. (It’s also a good opportunity to visit his daughter Jennifer, who is a teacher on the Navajo reservation in Arizona. Another daughter, Emily, works in health care and lives closer to home, in Plymouth.)

Mostly, though, retirement has just provided more time for volunteer efforts. He chairs Livonia’s committee for the Tree City U.S.A. program and helps organize school tree plantings each Arbor Day. An expert in wildlife habitat—he’s certified by the National Wildlife Federation—he helps landowners, schools and local park administrators create wildlife havens. And he leads “bug hunts” for FOTR, teaching community members about aquatic insects and what they mean for stream health.

“He volunteers in so many different ways,” Petrella says. “He’s just so connected to the environment, and to the Rouge in particular, that he speaks very knowledgably about it. He has a way of being very effective at advocating for people to do the right thing.”

Craig recently became involved in an effort by FOTR and local governments to establish the lower Rouge as a National Water Trail through a National Park Service program. He has led recent canoe trips from Canton to the Detroit River, working to open a paddling route through hundreds of logjams while sticking to his woody-debris principles.

Earning the water trail designation will take a lot of time, effort and education, but that’s ok with Craig. “I’m persistent,” he says. “Long and difficult doesn’t matter.”

And if his many past successes are any indication, work on the water trail will be like his recent paddles down the Rouge: as fulfilling as it is challenging.

“It’s about the people you meet who are doing great things,” he says. “This work has been totally satisfying and rewarding to me.”
-Andy McGlashen
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