Milliken Award recipient Andy Buchsbaum: Accomplished Great Lakes guardian
“He said, ‘How can you see something that’s wrong and not do anything about it?’” Buchsbaum remembers. “That’s always stayed with me. After that moment, that was it for me. That’s what I was going to do.”
And—fortunately for everyone who loves the Great Lakes—that’s exactly what he’s done. Buchsbaum has worked for decades to understand threats, identify solutions and build the political will needed to protect and restore the world’s greatest freshwater resource. An architect of the most significant Great Lakes protection policies in recent decades and a legal expert in holding polluters accountable, Buchsbaum this year joins other outstanding environmental champions as recipient of the Michigan Environmental Council’s Helen and William Milliken Distinguished Service Award.
“Andy is the go-to person for authoritative information about Great Lakes protection, and pragmatic solutions to complex issues,” said past Milliken Award winner Lana Pollack, former president of MEC and now U.S. Chair of the International Joint Commission. “His contributions to the Great Lakes are legion, and this award is richly deserved.”
After 11 years as Regional Executive Director for the National Wildlife Federation’s Great Lakes Regional Center, Buchsbaum became NWF Vice President of Conservation Action in late 2014. It’s a national position, but he remains based in Ann Arbor—not surprising for someone with such deep roots in the region.
Buchsbaum grew up in Oak Park, Illinois, just miles from Lake Michigan. Trips to nearby North Avenue Beach, Indiana Dunes and Warren Dunes were summer highlights. Family vacations always involved camping, usually on a Great Lake shoreline.
“When you live that close to the lakes, they dominate your geography, external and internal,” he says. “I learned directions based on where Lake Michigan was. The lake is always to the east. You learn everything else from there.”
Buchsbaum traded fresh water for saltier shores during a bicoastal academic career. After studying government at Harvard, he earned a law degree at Berkeley and a Master of Laws from Georgetown.
Then, his inner compass pointed home.
In 1985, Buchsbaum took a program director job with the grassroots organizers at Public Interest Research Group in Michigan (PIRGIM), which at the time was focused on building public support for legislation proposed by Pollack, then a state senator. The heart of the proposal was a “Polluter Pay” bill to hold corporations responsible for cleaning up their toxic messes.
Buchsbaum helped lead a creative campaign that included a media tour of the most toxic site in every county; original songs written by PIRGIM staff about hazardous pollution that actually got airplay on commercial radio; and a canvassing effort that culminated in Buchsbaum and colleagues dumping 100,000 citizen-signed postcards in then–Gov. John Engler’s office.
After five years of relentless advocacy for Polluter Pay, Buchsbaum found himself at the table with House and Senate members, negotiating a version of the bill that could pass both chambers and earn Engler’s signature.
“The key was, there were no breaks for food or the bathroom,” he says with a laugh. “If you left the room, you could miss the thing that was your issue. We were younger than they were. We could operate longer without food and without bathroom breaks. We could outlast them.”
Buchsbaum notched another major victory in 1997 when, as an attorney with the National Environmental Law Center, he won a landmark pollution settlement with Dow Chemical. Triggered by illegal phosphorus discharges from Dow waste ponds into the Tittabawassee River, the deal evolved to require that the company remove dioxin contamination from its Midland facility—a cleanup that continues today and is estimated at $29 million.
The settlement’s $800,000 for environmental projects to remedy the phosphorus discharges might look like small potatoes in comparison. But through the interest it generates and grant dollars it has helped leverage, that fund has paid huge dividends for the Saginaw River watershed, said Terry Miller, chairman of the Bay City–based Lone Tree Council, which Buchsbaum represented in the lawsuit.
“His single work on our behalf has resulted in over $20 million in projects dedicated to improving the water quality in the Saginaw River and Saginaw Bay,” said Miller, who also is an MEC board member.
Restoring a treasure
The Great Lakes became Buchsbaum’s chief focus when he joined NWF in 1998. The lakes had come a long way from the embarrassing pollution of the 1970s, but they were imperiled by fundamental, if largely invisible, threats. In 2005 a group of scientists would warn that nutrient loading, invasive species and other stressors had the Great Lakes on the brink of “a tipping point of irreversible changes” and “widespread ecosystem breakdown.” Their report provided a prescription for the lakes that called for protecting intact habitat, addressing known stressors and restoring tributaries and wetlands to help the lakes heal themselves.
There was no shortage of groups working to fill that prescription, but they lacked a unified plan and the funding to turn it into action. In 2004, Peter Wege, the late founder of the Grand Rapids–based Wege Foundation, sought to change that by sponsoring the first Healing Our Waters (HOW) conference.
Buchsbaum worked with the Wege Foundation, advisor Mark Van Putten and Tom Kiernan, then president of the National Parks Conservation Association, to help organize the event. When the successful conference ended, Wege agreed to invest $5 million over five years to support the newly formed HOW Coalition, and put Buchsbaum and Kiernan in charge. The goal was to secure the necessary federal funding to protect and restore the lakes.
Buchsbaum’s leadership, organizing skills and deep understanding of regional and national politics were invaluable in helping the coalition map a winning strategy to achieve that goal, says Terri McCarthy, vice president of programs at the Wege Foundation.
“The one person who knew that the timing was right was Andy,” she says.
Buchsbaum and others helped make Great Lakes restoration a national issue in the 2004 presidential election, recognizing that the region was full of swing states. That paid off in May of that year when President George W. Bush issued an executive order calling the Great Lakes a national treasure and creating an interagency task force to promote and coordinate their restoration. When the task force began convening meetings in 2005 to create a Great Lakes restoration plan, the HOW Coalition jumped at the opportunity. Buchsbaum and other members were deeply involved in creating the Great Lakes Regional Collaboration Strategy and calculating a $20 billion price tag.
With a unified plan and a quantifiable policy goal, Buchsbaum and allies set to work building the political will to make it happen. He testified before congressional committees, raised money for public opinion polling to find effective messages, and used those messages to make the Great Lakes an issue in another presidential campaign, this time with a Democratic nominee from a state bordering Lake Michigan.
President Obama signed the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative in 2009, an unprecedented investment in protecting and restoring the lakes. The ongoing program has invested about $2 billion in more than 2,000 projects around the basin, each one bearing the stamp of Buchsbaum and the other HOW members who crafted the restoration plan and worked hard to put it into action.
“Had it not been for Andy and his persistence, that wouldn’t have happened,” says McCarthy. “He was the right person for the job.”
During Buchsbaum’s eight years as HOW co-chair, the coalition made the Great Lakes a bipartisan priority, giving the GLRI good prospects for life beyond the term of a president from the region.
“This is now a Great Lakes delegation program, not just an Obama program,” Buchsbaum says.
Forging the Compact
Of course, the GLRI’s success would be worth as much as a pound of Asian carp fillets if plans to ship or pipe Great Lakes water out of the basin had materialized, which didn’t look too far-fetched a decade ago. A Canadian company’s 1998 proposal to ship tankers of water to Asia was not the first hackle-raising attempt to siphon off the Great Lakes.
“You can’t possibly have a healthy aquatic system without water,” Buchsbaum notes.
Buchsbaum was appointed to represent conservation groups in discussions that led to a 2001 agreement between Great Lakes states and provinces to forge a pact to protect the lakes from diversions outside the basin and from unsustainable use within it.
He was a lead negotiator in the long process that followed, and his strong leadership kept the talks on track when disagreements between environmental and business groups threatened to derail them. The region’s governors and premiers in 2005 signed the Great Lakes Compact language that Buchsbaum helped to craft. After helping to achieve the Compact’s passage by state legislatures, he played a key role in securing the votes in Congress that put the Compact on the desk of President Bush, who signed it in 2008.
Buchsbaum’s new role at NWF is a bit of an adjustment. There’s a lot more travel, more of the administrative work that keeps an organization humming. But that’s fine, he’s not a process guy. He’s all about outcomes.
“The best part of the job is getting stuff done,” he says. “You do whatever that takes. You’ve got to be able to fix things, not just work toward it.
“One of my biases has been: A principled loss is not a victory. At the end of the day, keeping the Great Lakes healthy means getting real change on the ground.”
Dedicated as Buchsbaum is to getting stuff done, his on-the-job achievements don’t make the cut when he’s asked what accomplishment makes him proudest.
“Raising two kids who are fine people and want to make the world a better place,” he says.
Buchsbaum has two sons with his wife, Cathy Fleischer, a professor of English at Eastern Michigan University. Seth is a graduate student in law and natural resources at the University of Michigan. Jesse graduated from U-M this year and is beginning his career with an environmental policy group in Chicago.
Kids grow up, job titles change, political winds shift. But some things remain. Buchsbaum family vacations still revolve around favorite places beside the Great Lakes, just as they did in Andy’s childhood.
“It’s the same value,” he says. “These are the places where family memories are made.”
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