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NMEAC Rise of the Enviro-Rebels- founders look back on 25 years

Robert Downes - October 27th, 2005
   Twenty five years ago, a new force for the  environment arose in Northern Michigan as a puff of wind that has since acquired a hurricane-like power for whipping up public opinion and action in defense of our natural resources.
  NMEAC  -- the Northern Michigan Environmental Action Council -- has been involved in virtually every environmental battle in the region over the past generation.  NMEAC has also played midwife to many citizen activist groups through the years, such as the Friends of the Crystal River.  If there‘s a fight brewing in your town over a new development, a big box store, or a sprawl-producing bypass, chances are that members of the 700-strong NMEAC are lending their voices and skills to the outraged citizens.
   This Friday, NMEAC celebrates 25 years of rabble-rousing at the Hagerty Center in Traverse City.  We checked in with executive director Ken Smith and co-founder Sally Van Vleck on how NMEAC got started and where it‘s going.

   Sally Van Vleck is co-founder and owner of the Neahtawanta Center on Old Mission Peninsula, an inn which is involved in bioregional and peace & justice issues.

  NE:  How did NMEAC get started?
   VanVleck:  It really was four women sitting around a kitchen table back in 1980 -- that‘s the myth and that‘s actually the truth.  We were talking about the Big Rock Nuclear Power Plant and some hearings that were coming up on changing the rules of safety.  
  We were concerned about nuclear power, our kids and the environment -- just four friends who got together to express our concerns.  We wanted to raise enough money to hire an expert to speak at a hearing.  We weren‘t intending to start an organization, but we did have an art auction to get donations for the cause. (The other women involved included Judith Comstock, Martha Phillips and Char Goral.)
   NE:  What were you doing at the time?
  VanVleck:  I was raising kids, just being a mom.  In the course of planning this event at the old barns at the Grand Traverse Civic Center which got torn down, people kept asking ‘who are you?‘  My husband at the time was Jim Olson (a prominent environmental attorney), and he said we should call ourselves NMEAC because it had a tie-in with environmental groups on the east and west side of the state: EMEAC and WMEAC.
   We filed papers to become a non-profit, but our auction was not a big money-raiser.  None of us had done anything like this before -- it was all by the seat of our pants.  We had the auction on a Saturday in July when it was 85 degrees out.  But it wasn‘t a total flop because it got our name out and a lot of us bought art and launched NMEAC.

   NE:  Where did you take it from there?
  VanVleck: Fall came and an issue just dropped into our laps over oil-drilling in the Sand Lakes Quiet Area.  We got a lot of petition signatures together which got our name out and a lot more members.
   Then came the plan for a downtown Bayview Mall (planned for along the river in downtown TC in the mid-‘80s) and that meant a big push for membership. We made some enemies on that issue, where it was ultimately determined that the downtown property was public parkland.  My current husband, Bob Russell, was head of NMEAC at the time and led the charge on that one.

   NE:  Have you had any frustrations over NMEAC‘s course through the years?
  VanVleck:  NMEAC never really got the funding thing figured out in terms of operating revenue. No one was ever paid anything -- it‘s mostly all volunteer work.
  What kept NMEAC going was its grass roots appeal.  We never had a paid staff, but then, I think something gets lost in an organization when you get so caught up in seeking grants that you don‘t get the work done.  And not every issue that we‘ve approached is fundable by a foundation. Most aren‘t interested in things like nuclear power.

  NE:  What do you consider NMEAC‘s biggest successes?
  VanVleck:  I think that stopping the Bayview Mall was one of the biggest things for the whole region, but also just the overall awareness of our envirnment spread out in so many different ways.  We raised awareness that our environment wasn‘t going to be there unless people got involved.
   Ken Smith is NMEAC‘s current executive director.  A former GM engineer, he obtained a Ph.D in planning in the 1970s.  Today, he‘s a consultant with Resource for Great Programs, Inc., which does market research for non-profit groups trying to obtain legal aid for the poor.

  NE:  How did you get involved in NMEAC?
   Smith:  I had written some tongue-in-cheek letters railing about some things going on, particularly the proposed bypass of Traverse City.  In 1987 I wrote a forum that talked about all of the things you could buy for the $40 million they were going to spend on the bypass and that included a 10-speed bike for everyone living in the region with enough left over for 40 buses.  Phil Thiel, who was NMEAC‘s director at the time, called me and asked me to get involved.  

   NE:  There was a lot of publicity about NMEAC back in the mid-‘80s.  What was it like back then?
   Smith:  It was a well-meaning and talented group of people, but not very well organized.  We were kind of all over the place and our board was kind of inexperienced at getting things done.
  What I tried to do was make NMEAC more strategic. Rather than being all over the map and protesting one bad thing after another, I tried to focus on specific issues.  For example, it was very clear that sprawl was damaging everything.  We tackled the big drawers of sprawl, such as the huge bypass planned around Traverse City.

   NE:  Some of these things seem to come back again and again every time you think they‘re finished, like the Hammond-Hartmann Bridge.
  Smith:  It‘s like killing a vampire -- nothing is ever really killed because there‘s too much money at stake for the proponents of this project to make them give up and say, we made a mistake and we‘re done.  But we got the attention of the establishment of this area that there is a problem with the bypass.  The county has appointed a group to oversee the visioning and planning effort and we‘re part of it - it‘s really a good step.

  NE: Where do you see NMEAC 25 years from now?
  Smith: I see two things. One is that we‘ll continue to do what we‘ve found to be most effective over the last 25 years.  We helped launch at least a dozen activist groups through the years and we‘ll continue to support other groups and get people involved in the issues.  We‘ll capture citizen outrage and provide channels for it.
   We‘re also building a litigation fund -- an endowment that will give us a huge capacity to file strategic lawsuits here that will be really effective.  We‘ve found it can be very effective to sue a public body when it‘s not doing its job.  We sued Cone Drive and the DEQ and ended 30 years of contaminating Boardman Lake.  They were just trading paper back and forth for 30 years until we filed a lawsuit.  
   I don‘t think it will take a huge amount of money in our endowment to send the DEQ, DNR, EPA, county prosecutor and developers a message that if they aren‘t doing their jobs right, we‘ll sue them.
   NMEAC celebrates its 25th anniversary Friday, Oct. 28  from 6-9 p.m. at the Hagerty Center in TC (Great Lakes Maritime Academy)  for a $20 donation -- $10 for students and seniors.  Info:

  Major NMEAC Actions 1980-2005:
  • Defense of Sand Lakes Quiet Area
  • Monitoring Big Rock Nuclear Power Plant
  • Launched oil recyling & acid rain programs
  • Launched Friends of Crystal River to stop a proposed golf course on the river and a land swap
  • Opposition to development of North Fox and       South Fox islands.
  • Opposition to TC Bypass & Hammond-Hartmann Bridge
  • Lawsuit ended pollution of Boardman Lake.
  • Defeat of proposed Bayview Mall.  Opposition to GT Mall and Horizon Outlet Center.
  • Guidance of many local groups: Friends of Elmwood Twp, Friends of the Jordan & Boardman River Valleys, Concerned Citizens for Acme, East Bay and Arbutus Lake, Coalition for Sensible Growth & more.

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