Thomas Bailey dives into deep questions about man's relationship with nature
By Patrick Sullivan | June 30, 2018
When Thomas Bailey took over as executive director of the Little Traverse Conservancy 34 years ago, he sat down and read a couple years’ worth of the nonprofit’s newsletters. While he found them to be informative, he also found that the writing lacked heart.
Bailey believes the business of land conservation requires heart, and he wanted to explore that in his own writing. He would go on to write a quarterly column for the conservancy that would explore man’s connection to nature and would keep returning to the question — why must we save wild land?
Bailey, who grew up in the Upper Peninsula, followed in his father’s footsteps and served as a Michigan Department of Natural Resources officer early in his career. He also identifies as a conservative, and over the years, his essays also explored what it means to be a conservative who has dedicated his life to environmental work.
In August, Bailey will retire from the conservancy. To mark the milestone, Michigan State University Press published a book of some of his essays called “A North Country Almanac – Reflections of an Old-School Conservationist in a Modern World.”
Northern Express sat down with Bailey to talk about his book, his career, and why wilderness is so important.
Northern Express: One of the themes you keep coming back to in your essays is the notion of being a conservative and working in an environmental field. You often wrote as though you were on the defensive about that.
Thomas Bailey: [Laughs] Well, I was on the defensive. There’s a lot of political orthodoxy in the environmental movement, and I never subscribed to that entire political orthodoxy.
Express: Even in the 1960s, when you were an activist who lobbied the federal government to enact a wilderness designation for Isle Royal?
Bailey: Yup. You know, I took a lot of grief because I voted for Nixon in ’72. That went against the orthodoxy. And even at the time when I worked at a regulatory agency, at the Department of Natural Resources, I was always concerned about over-emphasizing the regulatory side of things, because I saw the limits of the regulatory system from the inside, and I didn’t see it as the cure-all that some people seem to think government regulation could be. So yeah, I guess, in terms of the political rhetoric of many environmental organizations, I’ve always felt — I don’t know if I’d say defensive — but at least somewhat on the outside, and to some extent the loyal opposition.
Express: And yet, you have a lot in common with the opposition. You share many common objectives.
Bailey: Absolutely. I wouldn’t want to imply that I’m not in sympathy with the need for pollution control and preserving natural areas and parks. It’s more about the means of how you accomplish it.
Express: There was a paradox that jumped out at me from your essays: You’re a staunch supporter for private property rights, and you believe that private ownership is the solution to so many problems, but at the same time you devote an entire essay to the defense of public land and your belief that the government should hold onto it. How do you reconcile those?
Bailey: I don’t see it as a conflict. I see it as protecting what gave rise to the American character. You know, when the United States was a young, growing nation with private property and private land ownership, there were a lot of people who felt that greed was going to completely take over, and this new experiment was going to show that there were going to be monopolies and greed and rampant corruption. And yet the nation that gave the world the most extensive system of private property ownership also gave the world its first national park, in 1872, in Yellowstone. To me that dichotomy shows that sometimes private ownership can bring out the best in people. And sometimes that’s — like in the case of Yellowstone — the decision that private ownership is not the best thing. I think the first European Americans to see Yellowstone, and certainly the railroad people, thought, “Wow, we’re going to cash in on this,” but there was a consensus that developed: “Let’s leave it the way it is, and let’s let people come and enjoy it the way we did.” And the national park concept was created.
Express: You also often wrote about your belief in the superiority of private interests over government regulation.
Bailey: I think too much faith is put in the regulatory model. In the 1960s and ’70s we saw a huge rise in the regulatory system. Huge progress was made in a short period of time because there was so much work to be done. We took tons and tons of waste out of our rivers, lakes, and streams, for example, through the Clean Water Act. With one stroke of the pen, when the Michigan governor signed a phosphate ban, that did more to clean up Lake Erie than almost any other single thing. But now that we’ve done all of those, we’re reaching the point of diminishing returns with some of the regulatory things, and I think we need to start looking at, for example, pollution-prevention strategies rather than further regulations.
Express: What do you think about the way things stand today, with the current Environmental Protection Agency leadership seemingly intent on dismantling as many regulations as they can?
Bailey: There’s always been a tug-of-war about regulations, and the pendulum has swung between various administrations. And that’s one area where I think the political process is kind of healthy because it sorts itself out over time. That pendulum does swing, and it’s probably good that it does. I don’t foresee any cataclysmic dismantling of our regulatory system. I think we’re going to continue to see those pendulum swings. I don’t want to give the impression that I’m completely down on the regulatory system. I’m not.
Express: In your essays over the years, you keep asking the question whether there is some actual health benefit to spending time in nature. Why is that so important to you?
Bailey: Probably the one quotation that I’ve used more than any others in all of my public talks and presentations, [is from] Walt Whitman, who wrote in his book “Leaves of Grass,” “The secret of making the best person is to grow in the open air and to eat and sleep with the earth.” Now that was a poet talking. But if you fast-forward now, there are a number of well-documented studies that show that, in fact, that human growth and development are enhanced by spending time in unstructured play in nature. Kids do better socially, cognitively, if they spend time in unstructured play outdoors. People in hospital rooms that have a scenic view tend to recover more quickly than people in the hospital rooms that don’t have a scenic view. The evidence is piling up and now the professors are starting to prove what the poet said, that it’s good for us to spend time outdoors.
Express: Another favorite topic of yours is hunting. You write that that’s another conflict that comes up between you and some environmentalists who are anti-hunting. Hasn’t that gotten better over the years? Don’t most environmentalists today, at least around here, understand that hunting is necessary for wildlife management, or am I missing something?
Bailey: I think there are fewer hunters today than there were 30 years ago. I think hunting is being seen more and more as kind of an archaic thing. But I think you can point to natural human inclinations and things that are hardwired in our brains. I think those hunting and gathering influences are in-born to us, and they express themselves in different ways if you don’t live in a natural environment. I think one of the things we’re seeing is that people lose their way when they don’t have the rites of passage that our ancestors had. For instance, there’s been a lot of literature about young boys being misguided and lost and having social adjustment problems. Well, it used to be, in the old hunter-gatherer cultures, that boys would have these rites of passage, they would go on their first hunt, they would make their first kill, they would provide their first food for the village. These were rites of passage that defined emergence from boyhood into manhood.
Express: Do you have any reason to believe that the trend of fewer people hunting will be reversed? Or do you think it’s something that’s just going away?
Bailey: That’s a good question. Part of that is certainly because our population has become more and more urbanized, so people just simply don’t have the opportunity to hunt. They’re in areas where they can’t go hunting. Many of the urban areas, there’s more restrictions on firearms. So they don’t grow up with hunting. They don’t grow up with firearms. Those of us who grew up in rural areas, hunting was part of our culture. I mean, when I was going to school in Marquette, and I guess today this sounds sexist, but boys got two days off for deer season, because it was assumed that we were going to go hunting to put meat on the table. You know, you don’t see those kinds of things any more. I haven’t checked with Marquette High School lately. I don’t know if they still give time off for deer season or not.
Express: Let’s zero in on northern Michigan. What accomplishments are you most proud of over your tenure at the Conservancy?
Bailey: Certainly the one that kind of put us on the map was the Colonial Point Forest at Burt Lake, which now belongs to the University of Michigan Biological Station. That was and fortunately remains one of the most outstanding stands of red oaks anywhere in the Great Lakes. It exists because of a unique combination of American Indian agriculture in years past and simply being left alone for a long time. The logging company that purchased it was going to do a really heavy cut.
Express: When did the logging company purchase the land?
Bailey: Just after I started at the conservancy. Jim Devereaux of Devereaux Sawmill in Pewamo, Michigan, bought the property and was going to cut it. A woman named Wendy O’Neil, who worked at the Michigan Nature Conservancy at the time, called me about it. The Nature Conservancy wasn’t going to make this project a priority but she said, “This needs to be done.” And Jim Devereaux was very cooperative. He said, “I see the value of this timber, and I will give you a chance.”
Express: How did it play out?
Bailey: I wrote probably the best news release of my career – “Conservationists Racing the Clock to Save Ancient Forest.” And it got picked up by the wire services. It was in The New York Times, L.A. Times, Miami Herald. It was in the winter, so I was getting phone calls and notes from our members who were at their winter homes. And so it gave us notoriety, and when we succeeded, it was our first million-dollar-plus project, and we realized what we were capable of as an organization and what people would do to support us.
Express: Is there one that’s still out there, that you would have like to have gotten, but perhaps now has to be a goal for your successor?
Bailey: The former site of the Big Rock Point nuclear power plant [near Charlevoix]. That was before the Natural Resources Trust Fund board for state acquisition a few years ago. It didn’t happen for a number of reasons that I think are unfortunate. But there’s a big chunk of unspoiled Lake Michigan shoreline there that has been guarded and protected because of the nuclear plant. Much of that land is wet, and to me the highest and best use of wetlands is conservation. And it would be a wonderful place for a public park. It’s really significant to the native people. It was their departure point, Kitchiossining, the Big Rock, a very significant place. It’s interesting because this area has been a resort for hundreds and hundreds of years. I mean, the Indian people, not all of them stayed here, a lot of them went south for the winter. So you think of the resort tradition today, the people who come in the summer, well, it’s nothing new.
Express: How confident are you that the land that’s been preserved over your career will be preserved in the future? Could a political shift come along one day and take it all away?
Bailey: Several thoughts on that. Number one, we have built and continue to build at the Little Traverse Conservancy an endowment fund that guarantees we will be able to protect that land forever. When I interviewed for the job I asked if they had an endowment fund, and they said they hadn’t established it yet, it was planned for the future; and I said, “If you hire me, we’re going to have one because I’m not going to look somebody in the eye and tell them I’m going to protect your land forever if I don’t have some assurance that that’s going to happen. So that’s financial insurance that the organization will always be there in order to fulfill its obligations as land stewards. Second, the likelihood that conservation easements are going to be somehow undone I think is extremely remote. And also, as sprawl and the population grows, people are going to be more and more interested in land protection.
Express: How do you sum up why land conservation is important?
Bailey: I was invited several years ago to speak to a conference of city and urban planners. They were meeting in Traverse City, and I agreed to go down and talk about land conservation. I arrived and found that I was the last speaker on the last day in the last session after lunch. This is not the time to give a long, boring speech. So I said, “You all need to get on your way, and I won’t keep you, but I’m going to tell you something. You’re going to laugh when you hear it, but that’s OK. I hope you think about it on the way home. And that is this: In ecology we talk about indicator species. In a lot of systems there is a species that is an indicator of the health of that system. For example, on an inland lake, the loons. If the loons are healthy, it means the fish are healthy, and the water and the air and all of those things.” And I said, “In northwestern lower Michigan today, the principal indicator species is the wealthy resort property owner.” And they laughed. And I said, “Here’s why: I know these people. I work with them. These are people that can afford to live anywhere in the world if they want. What does it mean if they come here? It means that the natural environment, the cultural environment, and economic environment are all to their liking. That indicates there are quality of life indicators here that are literally world-class. I think we should pay attention to that.