Reflecting on Earth Day 1970 in Michigan and the Origin of the State’s Environmental Movement

By Dave Dempsey

Above: Poster for the ENACT (Environmental Action for Survival) Earth Day Teach-In on the University of Michigan – Ann Arbor campus in March 1970.


“Man has so severely despoiled his natural environment that serious concern exists for his survival…What began as an idea and a desire to do something about saving our environment by a small study group has now mushroomed into an officially recognized organization with nearly 200 members.”

— From the newsletter of ENACT (ENvironmental ACTion for Survival), University of Michigan, Nov. 19-28, 1969

The public concern awakened in 1962 by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring had deepened with news of the exploding world population and declining wildlife species like bald eagles, which plummeted to just 82 pairs in Michigan during the 1960s after DDT exposure thinned their eggshells. As pollution darkened skies and choked rivers, many new activists drew a link between environmental problems and threats to the survival of the human race. The new movement of environmentalists suddenly became a major force in Michigan during the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Jane Elder, who worked for the Michigan chapter of the Sierra Club in the 1970s, said, “I and many others of the new environmental movement came of political age during the closing scenes of Viet Nam and the crest of civil rights. We knew we could change the world, and saving the environment was part of that agenda. We saw a generation of activists stop a war. Our motivations were driven in part by collective vision and passion, not the inside game.”

The Pioneering Work of Joan Wolfe in Michigan

One of the most effective of the new advocates was a bird-lover, mother, and volunteer, Joan Wolfe of Rockford, north of Grand Rapids. Born in Detroit in 1929, Wolfe grew up in Highland Park with parents who contributed considerable time to community affairs. Her mother was president of the local hospital auxiliary and of the Girl Scout Council; her father was president of the Highland Park school board and of the state chapter of the American Institute of Real Estate Appraisers. By contrast, her husband Willard had no family tradition of community activism, but had become an active fly fisherman. In his childhood living on the Detroit River at Grosse Ile just before World War II, he had seen “tremendous weed growth” and stayed out of the polluted water, but hadn’t then made broader observations about the condition of the outdoors. He was delighted to find trout in the Rogue River, which wound through the Rockford area, when the Wolfes moved there in the late 1950s. But the same stream was also fouled by effluent from the Wolverine Tannery and a paper mill. “There was no outcry,” Will Wolfe said in 1999. “It was still too close to the Depression. The problem was too close to the bread and butter of the community.”

Soon both of the Wolfes would become activists. In the early 1960s, Joan Wolfe became president of the Grand Rapids Audubon Club. In that position she tried to call the attention of Audubon members to issues that connected bird conservation to larger trends such as habitat loss and pesticide use.

A fire on the Cuyahoga River at Cleveland in July 1969 helped galvanize public sentiment for Earth Day the following year. A fire also erupted on the Rouge River in southeast Michigan in October 1969, alarming the public and inspiring calls for tougher environmental laws.

Her most important work began in 1966. Working with 11 sponsoring organizations, Joan Wolfe coordinated an all-day seminar that October at the Fountain Street Church in Grand Rapids to educate the community about problems facing the local, state, and national environment. It was one of the biggest events of its kind in that era, attracting over 500 people, half of them college students. Officials of the state conservation and public health departments spoke on the need for better sewage systems and the dangers of persistent chemicals, but others addressed threats caused by growing population and a social attitude that science could fix any natural resource problem. Dr. Howard Tanner of Michigan State University’s Department of Natural Resources said the predicted U.S. population of 400 million in the year 2000 posed special challenges, adding, “if we don’t put a level on our population and give thought to its distribution, we’re just stupid. There’s no other word for it.” Merrill L. Petoskey, assistant manager of the Southern Michigan Region of the department of conservation, called humankind “too reckless and too greedy. It’s almost past time when we can repair the damage we have caused.” 

The process of planning the seminar had resulted in general agreement among the sponsoring organizations that the community needed a coordinating organization. In February 1968, Joan Wolfe pulled together a dinner of Grand Rapids community leaders to ask their support for something she was calling the West Michigan Council on Environmental Action. The roster of the meeting was extensive and impressive.  Paid for by the Dyer-Ives Foundation, the dinner was attended by representatives of the local League of Women Voters, the West Michigan Tourist Association, the local Garden Club, the Anti-Pollution Committee of the utility workers local union, the Isaac Walton League, the Grand Rapids Press and WOOD-TV, the president of Grand Valley State College, and other dignitaries.

The group agreed on the need for a council of organizations and individuals who would work together on environmental causes, and they signed up to support it.  At the new council’s first meeting the following month, Wolfe was named president. The council grew quickly to include 45 organizations and more than 400 individuals. The organization also launched its issues work quickly, speaking at numerous hearings held by government agencies. An official of the state water resources commission exclaimed at a public hearing in 1968, “This is the first time we’ve heard from the grass roots.”

Gaylord Nelson Takes It National

U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin had proposed a national environmental “teach-in” on college campuses to be held in April, urging that it become an opportunity for learning about the nation’s and world’s grave environmental problems. Fueled by campus activism, the teach-ins evolved into Earth Day and stunned skeptics. An estimated 10,000 schools, 2,000 colleges and universities, and almost every community in the nation participated in events to celebrate and clean-up the environment. Cars were banned for two hours on Fifth Avenue in New York City. The U.S. Congress adjourned for Earth Day so that members could attend teach-ins in their districts.

All three major TV networks covered the events around the country. A geology student attending Albion College, Walter Pomeroy, appeared on a CBS-TV prime-time special on April 22, Earth Day: A Question of Survival, hosted by Walter Cronkite. In contrast to protests on other campuses that Cronkite called sometimes “frivolous,” the Albion activities Pomeroy organized included the cleanup of a vacant lot to create a small urban park.

Albion called itself “Manufacturing City U.S.A.,” CBS reported, and not all its foundries had installed air pollution control equipment. But Pomeroy told reporter Hughes Rudd that he had arranged meetings with the local polluters to promote dialogue.  “We were afraid,” he said, “that if we picketed the factories, it would actually turn the community against us.” The special showed Pomeroy’s fellow students jumping up and down on the non-aluminum cans they’d collected in the cleanup, making them easier to return to the manufacturer with a message that it should switch to recyclable materials. Michigan television stations also broadcast specials in the season of Earth Day. WOOD-TV in Grand Rapids broadcast a series, Our Poisoned World, detailing serious local air, water, and noise pollution, and the problem of garbage disposal.

Michigan One of the Hotbeds of Earth Day Action

At a five-day teach-in on the University of Michigan campus in Ann Arbor in March, in which an estimated 50,000 persons participated, Victor Yannacone, who in 1967 had filed the Environmental Defense Fund lawsuits to stop the spraying of DDT and dieldrin, spoke on use of the courts to halt pollution. He told students, “This land is your land.  It doesn’t belong to Ford, General Motors, or Chrysler…it doesn’t belong to any soulless corporation.  It belongs to you and me.” A new student group called ENACT organized the week’s events, which included an “Environmental Scream-Out,” a tour of local pollution sites, music by popular singer Gordon Lightfoot, and speeches by entertainer Arthur Godfrey, scientist Barry Commoner, consumer advocate Ralph Nader, and Senators Nelson and Edward Muskie of Maine.

Business Week magazine said the Ann Arbor event had attracted the greatest turnout of any teach-in to that date.  Noting that President Richard Nixon and college administrators hoped environmental issues would turn students away from Vietnam War protests, the magazine fretted that it appeared “the struggle for clean air and water is producing as many radicals as the war.  And if the rhetoric at Michigan is any guide, business will bear the brunt of criticism.”

Action Took Different Forms on Different Campuses

Tom Bailey, a Marquette high school student, worked with students at Northern Michigan University to plan Earth Day activities.  One was a “flush-in.” Students flushed fluorescent dye tablets down dorm toilets at a synchronized moment in an effort to prove that sewage was directly discharging into Lake Superior. 

Events like these not only attracted the attention of the press, but also gave future environmental professionals their first major public exposure. Bailey later worked for the state Department of Natural Resources, as had his father, and became executive director of the Little Traverse Conservancy. One of ENACT’s founders on the University of Michigan campus, John Turner, later became director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  Doug Scott, a graduate student active in ENACT’s teach-in planning, moved on to the national staff of the Wilderness Society and the Sierra Club.

Student concern and action did not stop on Earth Day. Walt Pomeroy of Albion College contacted activists on other campuses who agreed the next logical step was the formation of a student lobby for the environment.  Described as “lobbyists in blue jeans” by one newspaper, the new Michigan Student Environmental Confederation received a surprisingly warm welcome from some in the Capitol.

“Soon we made friends in the legislature on both sides of the aisle,” said Pomeroy in 1999. “We learned a day at a time. And since we were in the Capitol almost every day, our network of friends and supporters expanded from just student groups to a diversity of community, environmental and sportsmen groups. Legislative priorities turned into victories…We started an environmental organization with a good cause, not much financial support and worked with the sportsmen and other environmental groups. We created the path – the opportunity – for others to also organize environmental groups and hire staff. None had existed solely to focus on state environmental legislative policies prior to the creation of MSEC. Many followed and are now part of the accepted political landscape in Lansing and throughout Michigan.”


About the Author:

Dave Dempsey, Senior Advisor

FLOW Senior Advisor Dave Dempsey has 35 years’ experience in environmental policy. He served as environmental advisor to former Michigan Governor James Blanchard and as policy advisor on the staff of the International Joint Commission. He has also provided policy support to the Michigan Environmental Council and Clean Water Action. He has authored several books on the Great Lakes and water protection.

This article has been edited and excerpted from Dave Dempsey’s book, Ruin and Recovery: Michigan’s Rise as a Conservation Leader.


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By Dave Dempsey