Remembering Governor William Milliken, Protector of Michigan’s Environmental Soul

By Dave Dempsey

Michigan has many magnificent natural features, but none is quite like Hartwick Pines. A small remnant of the great white pine forest that spanned millions of acres of Michigan before the European arrival, the 49 acres at the heart of Hartwick Pines contain trees as tall as 160 feet and as old as 400 years. When, in 1992, a storm mortally wounded the tallest and largest of the primeval trees, known as the Monarch, it generated news headlines.

Another great tree has fallen. On Friday, October 18, former Governor William G. Milliken passed away at age 97 in Traverse City. The longest-serving governor in the history of Michigan, Milliken distinguished himself in numerous other ways, several of which seem especially important today. 

Former Vermont Governor Richard Snelling in 1982 suggested that Milliken “will surely be recorded in history as one of the nation’s great governors.” The day after Milliken’s passing, the Traverse City Record-Eagle wrote in an editorial that, “We cherish our governor … for his most precious quality: his innate ability to set aside party, politics and partisanship for the good of all Michiganders”.

Perhaps the Governor’s most lasting policy legacy is the framework of environmental laws that came into being during his 14 years in office, from 1969 to 1982. It was a case of the right person at the right time. As public consciousness of a century of environmental neglect and abuse peaked, and a clamor for a new approach grew to a crescendo, Governor Milliken took the initiative to propose or support, and ultimately sign into law the Michigan Environmental Protection Act, the Inland Lakes and Streams Act, the Wetland Protection Act, the Wilderness and Natural Areas Act, the Sand Dune Management and Protection Act, and many more. When the Legislature deadlocked on a proposed recycling deposit on beer and soda containers, he helped lead a citizen initiative to put the proposed law on the ballot. Voters approved it by a two-to-one margin in 1976.

Even in the 1970s, the decade of the first Earth Day, it wasn’t always politically easy to push for a cleaner environment. When scientists identified phosphorus laundry soaps as a major contributor to the algae blooms in western Lake Erie and elsewhere, the proposed remedy was a strict limitation on phosphorus content. Major Republican contributors strongly opposed the change, but Milliken defied them and took aggressive action to bring it into effect. Within only several years phosphorus discharges from wastewater treatment plants plummeted and Lake Erie began to recover.

Another important part of the Milliken record was his concern for the state’s great cities, including Detroit, which was deeply distressed during the 1970s. Working with Democratic Mayor Coleman Young, he invested state and federal resources in the city and won political support unusual for a Republican in the city. Today Milliken’s name crowns Michigan’s first urban state park on the Detroit waterfront.

Milliken’s regard for Michigan’s environment began early. His Traverse City upbringing (and a cottage in nearby Acme) acquainted him with woods and waters. Among his earliest memories were outdoor outings and swimming in Grand Traverse Bay. Deeply rooted in his home community, he frequently returned on weekends to his house on the bay while governor, finding peace and renewal.

But the Governor’s environmental record and values are not his only legacy. His style of governance—shunning the extremes, looking for solutions on which diverse interests could compromise for the public good—was the ultimate trademark of his service. In a time of divided government, when Democrats largely controlled the Legislature, he was able to enact his program through negotiation and cooperation.

Governor Milliken did not demonize his opponents. Public name-calling was foreign to him. And his civility worked. He remained in office longer than any other governor of Michigan in part because voters trusted him to do the right thing.

In researching and writing Governor Milliken’s biography, William G. Milliken: Michigan’s Passionate Moderate, I was honored to spend many hours with him and his wife Helen Milliken, a major historical figure in her own right. They were in person as they were in public—unfailingly gracious, kind, and reflective. There was nothing false or inauthentic about them.

Bill and Helen Milliken

In our time together, both Millikens spoke repeatedly of their appreciation of Michigan’s beauty and the need to continue fighting to protect it. It should not be forgotten that it was Helen Milliken who alerted her husband to the controversy over oil development in the wilds of the Pigeon River Country State Forest, and urged him to take a stand in favor of the forest’s conservation. She was a major influence on his environmental policies.

After he left office, he famously summarized his environmental values: “In Michigan,” he said, “our soul is not to be found in steel and concrete, or sprawling new housing developments or strip malls. Rather, it is found in the soft petals of a trillium, the gentle whisper of a headwater stream, the vista of a Great Lakes shoreline, and the wonder in children’s eyes upon seeing their first bald eagle. It is that soul that we must preserve.”

A part of Michigan’s soul passed from the scene last week, but thanks to Governor Milliken’s work, our soul will renew itself for generations to come.

Dave Dempsey, FLOW’s senior policy adviser, wrote the award-winning biography William G. Milliken: Michigan’s Passionate Moderate (University of Michigan Press, 2006).

A memorial service for Governor Milliken will be held in May 2020. The Milliken family has asked that, in lieu of flowers, donations in his memory and in support of his environmental legacy be made to FLOW and the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy.

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