MUSKEGON — She’s an avowed environmentalist, yet Tanya Cabala neither plays nor fits the role of the stereotypical advocate who’s constantly butting heads with adversaries.
She prefers a different tack, one that is premised on collaboration and understanding as a way to accomplish her goals.
“I have very strong environmental beliefs, but I’m a pragmatist. I want to accomplish things,” said Cabala, the Michigan director for the Lake Michigan Federation, a Chicago-based environmental advocacy group that seeks to protect and preserve Lake Michigan.
Cabala, a Whitehall native, has run the group’s Michigan office in Muskegon since it opened in 1991. The office will relocate next month to new quarters in Grand Haven.
The organization’s goal is to “do the best we can to protect Lake Michigan and the shoreline and certainly take into account the economic and social issues,” Cabala said. “Someone has to speak for the lake.”
A former elementary school teacher and tutor, Cabala grew up with an appreciation for nature, Lake Michigan and its sand dunes, yet didn’t dabble in environmental advocacy until the late 1980s. A mother of two young children at the time, she became interested in recycling and asked staff at the local library one day for information.
When another Whitehall resident wanted to form a local environmental group, the library staff passed on Cabala’s name. Together, the two later formed the Concerned Citizens of White Lake — and an environmental advocate was born.
“She called me up and said, ‘I think we should start an environmental group.’ I said, ‘OK, sounds like a good idea to me,’” Cabala said. “To me it was interesting and fascinating. It was a whole new world.”
“It turned my life around, and I’m glad for it,” she said.
Among the issues the volunteer group got involved in was the expansion of a local landfill and contamination in White Lake. The income Cabala earned working as a substitute teacher and private tutor went to pay the group’s phone bills.
In 1991, the Lake Michigan Federation contacted Cabala about running a new regional office the group planned to open in Muskegon. She accepted the job, opened the office and ran it alone for three years.
Among past accomplishments Cabala cites are public education and outreach on a Lake Michigan pollution study, outreach and education about sand dunes and regulations, and helping to form public advisory councils for Muskegon Lake and White Lake in 1993.
The Lake Michigan Federation also has taken a strong stand against mining within the Lake Michigan sand dunes. The group backs legislation pending in the state Legislature that would phase out all dune mining in Michigan by 2006, tighten restrictions on mining until the ban takes effect, and seeks to have miners move their operations inland.
Today, with a staff of five, the group is involved in a variety of environmental issues affecting Lake Michigan, including the promotion of pollution prevention initiatives. The effort is an area where the Lake Michigan Federation has worked cooperatively with area industries and hopes to expand.
Through those kinds of cooperative efforts, Cabala wants to dispel the notion that the interests of businesses and environmentalists conflict. Environmentalists and businesses can work together, if both are committed to finding common ground, she said.
“There are certain areas of common ground, if both sides are willing to look for it, if both sides are willing to set aside the stereotypes. It’s got to be a good-faith effort,” Cabala said. “We don’t want to just get out there and yell, we want to accomplish something. Our goal is to effect a solution.”
The key to any collaboration is the environmental ethic of the people who run businesses and industries. Cabala believes corporate environmental stewardship is growing.
Despite that optimism, and despite the goal of cooperation, the Lake Michigan Federation is not adverse to taking on the role of combatant.
“Environmentalists are certainly going to have to push when necessary, but there are other ways to accomplish their goals,” she said. “My preferred method is, ‘Here are the problems. Here are some preferred solutions. Let’s do it.’”
On the Lake Michigan Federation’s agenda now is growth and development along the shoreline. The recently released 2000 Census shows shoreline counties growing rapidly. Ottawa County alone grew 26.9 percent during the 1990s, adding more than 41,000 residents for a current population of 238,314.
That growth will bring new pressures to the lake, its adjoining watershed and their wildlife and aquatic habitats.
The Lake Michigan Federation wants to work with communities in the region to formulate ideas for local master development plans and zoning techniques and standards that are designed to negate the negative effects of growth.
Cabala stresses that the organization is “not anti-growth,” and is again seeking to fulfill its mission through cooperation.
“Basically, our message is growth is coming. Let’s guide it, let’s plan it, because if you don’t, you’re going to end up with something you don’t want,” she said.