Joan Luedders Wolfe, the activist who founded the West Michigan Environmental Action Council, died last month.
The West Michigan Environmental Action Council (WMEAC) said Monday that Wolfe died Jan. 23 at age 91.
“(It) is a sad day when we lose such an environmental champion,” said Fred Steketee, a fellow activist and longtime friend of Wolfe’s. “My thoughts immediately go to her every time our resident bald eagles and ospreys visit the Thornapple River rapids in front of our home, seeking their next meal.”
A native of Detroit, Wolfe and her late husband Willard Wolfe were drawn to Grand Rapids and the wilderness West Michigan was in 1960. Her activist career on environmental issues began shortly after arriving in the region while working with various independent organizations, including the Audubon Club and Trout Unlimited. Wolfe’s frustration with the lack of progress being made by these separate groups is what led to the eventual founding of WMEAC in 1968, the organization said.
“We both had realized that all of these organizations cared about the environment, but they were active on different fronts (and) nothing was getting done,” Wolfe said in a 2008 interview with Rapid Growth Media. “So, it was our idea that there should be an environmental organization that a lot of different organizations could join and there could be cooperative work.”
Wolfe founded WMEAC as a coalition of conservationists, PTA, union, service, minority, student and church groups, and developed a Michigan network to support legislation that was at the time deemed impossible to pass.
“Joan was responsible for the conception and passing of the Michigan law that gave ordinary citizens the power to enforce environmental laws, regulations or simply common laws in the courts. She was a great leader and a good friend,” said John McGarry, a fellow environmental activist.
WMEAC’s first big fight came a year following its creation when the organization sued to prevent the use of the infamous pesticide DDT in the Western District of Michigan, the organization said. The plaintiff’s suit, which carried public support, was thrown out on the grounds that private citizens could not sue on behalf of the environment. Wolfe and WMEAC responded by commissioning Joseph Sax, a law professor at the University of Michigan, to write a bill that would eventually become the Michigan Environmental Protection Act (MEPA). The 1970 law gave Michiganders the standing to do what WMEAC attempted in 1969 and would later become the model for similar statutes in a dozen other states and the basis for federal and international environmental law, WMEAC said.
According to environmental author Dave Dempsey, the citizen provision of the MEPA meant that “any citizen willing to go to court was deputized as a defender of the environment,” which was one of the major goals in the DDT lawsuit.
During Wolfe’s five years as WMEAC’s executive director, the organization grew steadily. By 1973, membership was at 700 individuals and 60 Grand Rapids-based organizations, and the nonprofit had an annual budget of $60,000, which is equivalent to about $320,000 today.
Under her leadership, WMEAC partnered on the creation of the Environmental Defense Fund, which, in addition to banning the use of DDT, later took on a case that standardized Michigan’s air pollution enforcement policy and won a major national safety case regarding plutonium in breeder reactors.
Wolfe’s work caught the attention of then Gov. William Milliken in 1973, and he appointed her to the Michigan Natural Resources Commission. She was the first woman to serve on the commission and, eventually, served as its chairperson. She also served on the Governor’s Advisory Committee on Electric Energy Alternatives and the first Natural Resources Trust Fund Board.
Wolfe was recognized with an honorary doctorate in public service from Western Michigan University and, in 1996, was inducted into the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame.
“Joan Wolfe set the bar high for what it means to be an organizer, a volunteer, an activist and an environmentalist,” said Bill Wood, executive director of WMEAC. “(She) took a very firm and very public stance that we needed stricter laws — and better agencies to enforce them — to protect an environment that by the mid-’60s was showing signs of collapse under the juggernaut of postwar industrialism.
“Joan’s spirit lives on in everything we do. Without Joan Wolfe, I doubt there would be a WMEAC. We must remember her tireless approach to living out her ideals when we are weary and exhausted from the struggle.”
Founded in 1968, WMEAC is a nonprofit that strives to respond to emerging issues and new threats to West Michigan’s natural and human ecologies with a strategic focus on building sustainable communities and protecting water resources through education and advocacy.