NMEAC Board circa 1991-1992
THE TIP OF THE SPEAR: NMEAC Celebrates Over 25 Years of Grassroots Advocacy
by Greg Reisig
From Big Rock to Hammond-Hartmann to North Fox Island to Boardman Lake and the Crystal River the Northern Michigan Environmental Action Council (NMEAC) celebrates its 25th anniversary in 2005 as the Grand Traverse region’s oldest and best known grassroots environmental advocacy group.
Formed in 1980 on the Old Mission Peninsula, NMEAC’s 500-plus members are concentrated in a five-county region in northwestern Michigan including Grand Traverse, Leelanau, Benzie, Kalkaska and Antrim Counties. The all-volunteer organization continues to operate with a simple mission: “Preserving the natural environment through citizen action and education.” In one way or another thousands of people have been members, served on the board, or benefited from the work of NMEAC.
“We just did it,” explained former NMEAC chair Bob Russell. “We always had the philosophy we’re doing it and not holding back. No other organization would do this with environmental issues. Funding always came in little by little.”
Environmental attorney Jim Olson explained the naming of the group came as a spin-off from the Western Michigan Environmental Action Council formed in the 1970s. “At the time we thought the best way would be to divide the state into WMEAC, EMEAC, and we would be called NMEAC.” Olson filed the original application for non-profit status and housed the NMEAC office behind his law offices during the 1980s. His law firms through the years contributed to NMEAC through thousands of hours of pro bono legal work on numerous environmental issues.
Olson said the beauty of the organization is it has retained a grassroots approach through its 25 year history. “No one owns NMEAC,” he stated, “The genius of NMEAC is its independence and ability to speak the truth with little wealth or resources. Look what grassroots can do when national organizations are compromised by their need for wealthy donors.”
NMEAC co-founder Sally VanVleck, who served as the first chairperson, says the group started with an art auction and a table in downtown Traverse City at the July 1980 National Cherry Festival. “We were just operating off the seat of our pants at the beginning. We wanted to form a group that did nothing else but tackle environmental issues like the Big Rock Nuclear Power Plant in Charlevoix and the preservation of the Sand Lakes Area where oil drilling was proposed.”
“We spent the bulk of our time organizing events and raising awareness,” she explained. “We had a table here and a table there at events. In those days we were very concerned with recycling, recreational trails, creating open space and cleaning up toxic waste. Our work was concentrated on raising awareness and creating networks.” Along those lines there was always a large glass jar on NMEAC tables for donations as the group sought membership and financial backing for its work. Mother’s Day concerts to raise funds became an early tradition of the group.
VanVleck praised the continuing work of Ken Smith, who joined NMEAC in the late 1980s, stating “he is the heart and soul of the group because he commands the respect of everyone from radicals to the mainstream fringe.” Smith held the position of chair for many years and is now paid $1 per year to serve as executive director.
Both Russell and VanVleck say their work at the Neahtawanta Center, which began in 1987, is a spin-off from their years with NMEAC. “We used street theatre and skits all the time. Another important aspect is the use of humor,” VanVleck explained. “Collaboration is the key. It works so much better when we all pull together.”
The NMEAC files are filled with hundreds of articles about the group’s work on numerous issues from the controversial Hammond-Hartmann Bridge to a proposed development on tiny North Fox Island that never took place after years of hearings and Leelanau Township meetings.
Of course, there was the legendary Buffalo Mall issue which sent up early red flags about the need to tackle urban sprawl. And who can forget NMEAC’s first lawsuit in 1986 concerning the Bayview Mall proposed for city parkland at the corner of Union Street and the Grandview Parkway. NMEAC’s suit forced a city-wide referendum bringing out a record number of voters to defeat the ill-conceived mall.
When plans for an art museum at Northwestern Michigan College were announced NMEAC worked with the group Voice of the Forest to explore options for the cutting of three acres of 120-year old white pines and oaks keeping a long-standing tradition of supporting and empowering citizen groups. After months of negotiations, including the proposal of alternate sites for the museum, the group won a compromise and reduced the number of trees to be cut from 900 to 300.
Then on July 5, 1990 NMEAC board member Bob Jones flew to North Fox Island on a small plane to see for himself this tiny island in Lake Michigan. The development proposal featured 600 homes, two marinas, an 18-hole golf course and a marina. The island is approximately one mile long and one half mile wide. Jones, who became co- chair in the early 1990s, also tackled the proposed Timber Shores development just south of Northport and was deeply involved with the group Friends of the Crystal River who opposed the construction of a golf course in wetlands by the Homestead Resort.
“I learned a great deal from my involvement in these issues,” Jones said. “My appreciation for the beauty of the region increased and I was often outraged at development proposals not appropriate for these sites. Ken Smith was the first one to use computers with NMEAC. I was always impressed with his unbelievable devotion, his sincerity, and the rock-ribbed, never-give-up attitude he brought to the organization.”
Jones said Jim Olson was involved in nearly every legal action taken by NMEAC during those years. “We were also wrapped up in land swaps, asphalt plants, oil spills, proposed trails and tire burning in Cadillac. We wanted to build coalitions, raise awareness and tackle numerous environmental issues facing the region. From 1989-1993 we were the most active environmental organization in the state.”
Ken Smith first read about NMEAC in the Record-Eagle when he followed the Bayview Mall issue in 1986. Smith said, “I kept hearing, “you can’t stop progress, this region is going to grow.” He joined NMEAC when he noticed it was the only group displaying the tenacity and expertise needed to negotiate with local governmental boards. He brought his background as a professional engineer, his willingness to tackle massive issues facing the region, and his keen sense of humor to the group and was quickly named chairman.
“After I had written a forum piece on sprawl published in the Record-Eagle I received a call from NMEAC executive director Phil Thiel asking me to join the group. I had read and seen the work of Bob Russell and Grant Parsons and admired what they were doing,” Smith said. “I thought the mall was a stupid idea and felt it would kill downtown.”
Smith and the board faced numerous issues in the 1990s including the Horizon Mall, Grand Traverse Mall, proposed Hammond-Hartmann bypass, pollution on Boardman Lake, the fate of the Grand Traverse Commons and renewable energy to name just a few. Other lawsuits were filed during this period which dramatically elevated awareness in the community through extensive newspaper coverage in the Record-Eagle. Many of these battles raged on for years.
One of NMEAC’s greatest accomplishments was the creation of the annual Environmentalist of the Year (EOY) Awards in 1988. While the very first of these award events featured only one recipient, EOY now recognizes people in ten categories including: Student, Educator, Business, Public Service or Public Office, Journalism and Communications, Volunteer, Professional, Grass Roots Group as well as the Clarence Kroupa and Golden Beaver awards. Over the years hundreds of people doing environmental work in the region have been recognized in what has become an annual spring event.
Current NMEAC co-chairs John Nelson and Bob Carstens say the number of EOY nominations was at an all-time high in 2004. “It’s a tradition we’re very proud of and look forward to organizing each spring,” Nelson said. He joined in 1999 as a member of another spin-off group The Coalition for Sensible Growth designed to address the proposed Hammond-Hartmann Bridge.
“NMEAC has not changed much in 25 years,” Nelson explained. “We remain the preeminent group to tackle environmental issues and continue to help other citizen groups organize. In recent years we have supported the work of the Concerned Citizens for Acme Township (CCAT) and the Concerned Citizens for Arbutus Lake (CCAL). I call us the tip of the spear.”
Carstens joined the group around 1995 when he was on the steering committee of The Coalition for Sensible Growth. “NMEAC should remain a grassroots, volunteer, citizen led advocacy group,” he emphasized. “I see us as watchdog, advocate, and supporter of citizen activism in the region.”
In a recent humorous gesture of good will Nelson and Carstens have proposed raising Ken Smith’s annual salary as executive director from $1 to $2 because of all the good work he has accomplished. The NMEAC board hopes to make a decision on this action before the end of 2005.
Long-time board member Ann Rogers became involved in NMEAC when Voice of the Forest was formed and the widening of Peninsula Drive was proposed that would have required the removal of 70 old trees. “The first homeland security is environmental security and this concept must be emphasized in the community. I see NMEAC playing a major role in the future as we challenge presumptions and continue to raise awareness and change behaviors.”
With a mile-long list of issues facing the current NMEAC board everyone is happy to take some time to reflect on 25 years of accomplishments. “We’re very proud of our history but we also know there’s a lot of work remaining as the region continues to grow,” Nelson concluded. “We’ll keep on being the tip of the spear.”