The words and memories flowed warmly and abundantly when on Sept. 20 the Michigan Women’s Historical Center opened the exhibit “Resourceful Women” on legendary female state conservationists. Too many of the women who shaped the state’s once-exemplary natural resources policies have been largely overlooked or been shoved into the recesses of history.
But just up the road, the legislative bickering over the state budget has threatened to chomp even more deeply into the state’s work — and reputation — as a guardian of natural heritage. It’s possible that within a generation we’ll need a museum to preserve the memory of a state that once did all it could to restore and conserve its beauty and health.
First, the good news: Women’s Historical Center curator Patricia Majher has created a valuable and long-overdue celebration of women who helped preserve wildlife, restore state forests, and enact landmark environmental legislation. The exhibit includes artifacts and other objects relating to the women (including a mounted American robin representing early state Audubon Society presi dent Edith Munger). It also includes nature audio and video recordings, a map of the hometowns of Michigan’s female conservationists, and activities for children.
“Women were founding and leading volunteer organizations dedicated to nature and the environment early on, but didn’t break the glass ceiling of paid employment in most nonprofits and government until the 1970s,” observes Maher. “Michigan women were and continue to be leaders in the preservation of nature, something of which the whole state can be proud.”
Majher says Margaret Drake Elliott, an outdoor writer for the Muskegon Chronicle for more than 60 years, is her favorite resourceful woman. “She was accomplished in so many ways,” she adds, pointing out Elliott was a botanist, ornithologist, and a lepidopterist “who added greatly to our knowledge of monarch butterflies.”
My favorites in the exhibit include Barb Stanton, the retired Detroit Free Press editorial writer whose brilliant pieces helped lawmakers find the courage to pass a strong wetlands law in 1979 (the same one that some in the Legislature now want to undo). This quiet birdwatcher spoke on editorial pages with an unmistakable, bold voice. “Wetlands … are more efficient than any sewer or storm drain system man has ever devised, and fertile, productive and beautiful besides,” she wrote. “We ought to act, at long last, to protect them.”
Then there’s the late Verna “the Dump Lady” Courtemanche, who was outraged by the private greed and governmental bungling that led to what was once one of the nation’s worst toxic waste sites across the street from her Genesee County home. She relentlessly pursued clean-up not just there, but all across the state, making polluters and bureaucrats (including me) squirm.
Also, the late Bertha Daubendiek, who directed the Michigan Nature Association for 49 years. As feisty and earthy as Courtemanche, she helped found the MNA and played a role in its first 150 or so preserves scattered across the state, including the unforgettable Estivant Pines in the Keweenaw Peninsula, a remnant of the state’s once-vast white pine glory. After a childhood in rural Iowa, Daubendiek took her love of the outdoors first to Chicago, then Detroit, where her work began. “You can take the woman out of the country, but you can't take the country out of the woman,” she once told a reporter. All three of these women spoke bluntly and fought passionately for what they believed. And while all of them worked outside of government, they played an indispensable role in making government work for conservation.
Today we could use them, and men like them. But Michigan conservation is instead dying slow because of budget cuts. Already shrunken to less than 1 percent of the state’s general fund, funding for the state Department of Natural Resources and Department of Environmental Quality are under assault from legislative mossbacks.
It doesn’t end there. The utility industry has legislative supporters who want to build more dirty coal plants and send state money to out-of-state coal companies. The state chamber of commerce’s friends at the Capitol say the state should give up its wetland program because the feds can do it better. And, two legislators want to force the DNR to sell 475 acres of public forest and wildlife habitat in Oscoda County to a private golf course developer, a break with decades of tradition.
These are just the latest examples of historical ignorance in Lansing. The state’s past shows that mismanaging and selling off state resources is no way to revive its economy or build a better life for our children and theirs.
It was appropriate that the speaker at the Sept. 20 Women’s History Museum kickoff was Becky Humphries, the first female director in the 88-year history of what is now the DNR. Humphries is smart and a good leader for the DNR, but the state’s fiscal mess and bipartisan political ineptitude have restrained her from advocating for what DNR needs — reliable and increased funding, freedom from legislators doing the bidding of polluters, and a way of harnessing the public will for protecting our resorces.
The exhibit, “Resourceful Women: 30 Who Worked to Protect Michigan’s Water, Woods, and Wildlife,” continues through Feb. 19 at the Women’s Historical Center, 213 W. Main St., Lansing, 517-484-1880.
(Dave Dempsey advised Gov. James Blanchard on environmental policy from 1983 to 1989. He is author of a book on Michigan's conservation history and is communications director for the nonprofit organization Conservation Minnesota.)