On Monday, Traverse City’s own William G. Milliken, the state’s longest serving governor, turns 96. It’s an appropriate time to reflect not only on his outstanding environmental record — the best of any chief executive of Michigan — but also on his legacy of civility and decency, as scarce these days in public life as rainfall in the desert.
Taking office a year before the first Earth Day in 1970, Governor Milliken put environmental issues high on his agenda. During his nearly 14 years in office he was instrumental in crafting the Michigan Environmental Protection Act, the Inland Lakes and Streams Act, the Wetland Protection Act, and the state’s nationally-renowned deposit law for beverage containers. He also signed laws improving management of hazardous and solid waste, protecting sand dunes, banning oil drilling in the Great Lakes, and creating the predecessor of the state’s monumentally successful Natural Resources Trust Fund.
He was the first governor to warn of the threat of Great Lakes water diversion, convening a conference on the subject in 1982. That led to Michigan law and regional policies banning most diversions.
It wasn’t always easy, or popular in the Governor’s own political party. He overrode objections from a key
party backer to support a rule reducing phosphate content in laundry soaps, leading to an almost immediate reduction in algae blooms.
Governor Milliken also considered the fate of Detroit closely linked to the vitality of Michigan. It’s regrettable that his strong support for mass transit in southeast Michigan — and the significant environmental and social benefits that would have resulted — was thwarted by skeptics.
The Governor credited his youth in northern Michigan as a major influence in his political support for environmental protection. He spent summers at his family’s cottage at Acme on the east arm of Traverse Bay. He enjoyed fishing, canoeing, and sailing.
Moderate in political philosophy, Republican Governor Milliken was statesmanlike in tone. He was willing and able to work with legislators of various political philosophies, and refrained from demonizing any. That, too, is part of his legacy.
“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.”
The Governor’s work goes on. It is the work of all Michiganders.