Since its founding in 1999, the Michigan League of Conservation Voters has worked tirelessly on conservation issues affecting the state’s land, water and air quality.
Based in Ann Arbor, much of that work has focused on outreach on the east side of the state as well as Lansing, where staff works closely with lawmakers on specific legislation priorities and concerns. Recently, however, the organization decided it was time to increase its outreach in West Michigan.
In 2012, MLCV opened a Grand Rapids office, and in January of this year it hired former State Sen. Patty Birkholz as the location’s West Michigan director.
“We’ve worked all over the state for many years, but not a lot of people on the west side were aware of the League of Conservation Voters — or not as many people as we’d like were acquainted with it,” Birkholz said. “We felt it was good to have a presence over here because a lot of our natural resources are over here. We have some of the best fishing rivers in the state on the west side, we have access to Lake Michigan — the whole west side of the state from the Indiana border up to the top of the mitten. So that was part of it.
“The fact is that there is a lot more interest and support for an advocacy group dealing with natural resource issues on this side of the state. That has grown, I would say, in the last several years. People are more aware of the importance of our natural resources. They not only help us make Michigan what it is — having available water and clean water, beaches and natural areas to hike in, you look at what Meijer has done with the trails … there is so much more going on here.”
Birkholz was selected to lead the West Michigan office because of her long history in conservation matters. Most recently, Birkholz worked as director of the Michigan Office of the Great Lakes. Previously, she served five terms in the Michigan Legislature, three in the House and two in the Senate. During her legislative career, Birkholz championed adoption of the Great Lakes Water Compact, authored Michigan’s nationally recognized water withdrawal laws, reformed wetlands regulations, and authored legislation that established Michigan’s current Renewable Energy Standard.
Her first foray into conservation began while serving as a local township parks and recreation commissioner for Saugatuck Township.
“That’s how I got my feet wet,” she said. “Saugatuck Dunes State Park became the first state park ever in Michigan to be planned by a citizens advisory committee, and I chaired that.”
Because of her efforts, when she retired from the Senate, the Natural Resource Commission dedicated 291 acres of natural area inside the Saugatuck Dunes State Park to her, naming the area Patricia Birkholz Natural Area.
Birkholz said MLCV is currently focusing on two main areas in West Michigan. The first is a partnership with the Grand Rapids Whitewater group that is working to restore the rapids to the downtown portion of the Grand River. The second is promoting the growing farm-to-table movement and working with the Wege Foundation on farmland preservation.
“We are helping to run the stakeholder group,” Birkholz said about the organization’s involvement with the Whitewater project. “We’ve been very involved with that. We have two committees and several co-chairs who are helping to guide it, staff it and keep it moving ahead. There are so many issues. It’s only the first stage.”
As the farm-to-table movement continues to grow and communities work on increasing access to fresh fruits and vegetables, farmers remain a big part of the picture for conservationists.
“Farmers should be, and many of them are, some of our best natural resource advocates, because if they don’t take care of what they have, they won’t have it in the future,” she said.
“You look at the growth of farmers markets up and down this side of the state, now with not only Wealthy Street but the new market downtown here, which is going to be wonderful, and I just heard on the radio that Muskegon is going to move their farmers market downtown where the mall used to be. In the Saugatuck/Douglas area we have not only a very active farmers market two or three days a week, but we also have a farm-to-table program. That is happening in a lot of areas on the west side.”
Birkholz said that partnering with other organizations working on environmental and natural resources plans is an important component for tackling the broad swath of issues that need attention.
“In this day and age, and especially with the amount of legislation that’s been attempted in Michigan lately around natural resources and conservation issues, it would be impossible for us not to work in partnership.”
The organization’s Ann Arbor office shares an office with the National Wildlife Federation, with which it works closely.
The state of Michigan may seem like an unlikely partner, especially after Gov. Rick Snyder received a grade of C on the MLCV’s How Green Is Your Governor mid-term ranking, but at the request of the governor’s office, the group is helping to coordinate conservation groups across the state to testify at hearings on the issue of renewable energy.
Birkholz said that education and outreach are important to conservation.
“More people are beginning to understand the importance and recognize and use the importance of natural resources in how they vote for people,” she said. “To me, it appears to have increased. You are always going to have the group of people who are very much driven to the voting booth based on natural resource issues, but I think there are more people who are paying a lot more attention to it when they are looking at legislators and the governor.”
She said it is not surprising given the importance of natural resources to the state’s economy and because Michigan residents want to preserve the quality of life for future generations.
MLCV holds lawmakers accountable, offering up scorecards on all three government branches: How Green is Your Governor, Green Gavels and the legislator Scorecard rankings, and all are available on the organization’s website. The effort lets voters see how their lawmakers are voting on environmental and conservation issues.