Saving Our Sacred Earth
Fred Van Dyke leads the Au Sable Institute, a Christian outpost funded by oil and gas and dedicated to fighting the climate crisis in the name of God.
By Patrick Sullivan | Oct. 12, 2019
Located on 200 acres on a pond in the woods between Kalkaska and Mancelona, the Au Sable Institute still looks like the small summer boys camp it once was, since its founding in the 1950s.
But it’s much more than a camp today. Throughout the school year, Au Sable hosts hundreds of students from around northern Michigan for field trips exploring the natural world. Each summer, the institute hosts 30 to 40 college students from around the country to teach them how to be Christian environmentalists.
Au Sable is the headquarters for an institute that runs environmental studies campuses in Washington State, Costa Rica, India, and, beginning next year, Chicago.
Fred Van Dyke, Au Sable’s executive director, is a formally trained wildlife biologist and self-taught theologian, and he’s passionate about expressing his faith through environmental work. That might make Van Dyke unusual among evangelicals, but Van Dyke hopes to change that, one student and a time.
Northern Express trekked into the woods to visit Van Dyke at the institute’s campus and learned about how the place started and what they do.
Northern Express: So, if I follow correctly, Dr. Harold Snyder established this place first as the Au Sable Trails Camp for Youth in the 1950s, and, over the years it evolved into the institute that it is today. A major turning point that made that possible came in 1979, after Au Sable received an incredible gift.
Fred Van Dyke: Yes. One of the gifts, not the only one, was the fact that Harold bought this land originally from a man named Louie Kleinschmidt. And Louie was not particularly well-liked, locally. He was an alcoholic and lived alone in a trailer in the woods. He didn’t have many friends, but Harold consistently befriended him. Harold wanted to win Louie to Jesus Christ, so he often brought Louie over to the camp to meet the boys, get comfortable. Louie did, and it was very moving for him. Harold relates that Louie often cried when he talked to the boys. As far as we know, Harold did not succeed in his primary objective. But one winter when they hadn’t heard or seen Louie around for a while, one of the neighbors went to the trailer and banged on the door. No answer. He went inside. And Louie was dead. But Louie had changed his will, and in his will, he had bequeathed to the institute 80 acres, close to but not contiguous with it, down on Sunset Trail, close to Pickerel Lake.
Express: And that turned out to be a very valuable piece of property.
Van Dyke: No one thought much of it at the time because it was covered with scrubby pines. But Louis also bequeathed with that land the mineral rights, and as the energy development began in this part of the country in the 1970s, some energy companies approached the board and asked for permission to explore that back 80. The board didn’t initially agree, but they negotiated with a lot of different companies and finally reached an agreement. And the deposit that they struck has been one of the longest-lasting and most productive — both with oil and natural gas — in northern Michigan. That led to a lot of royalties. To be as precise as possible, 1979 is an important year, because that is when Au Sable officially became an Institute.
Express: Do you agree that it’s ironic that an institute dedicated to environmental studies owes its life to oil money? Is there anything about that that you find problematic?
Van Dyke: Well, some people do, but I think it’s not as ironic as it looks, for several reasons. The first is that I haven’t been an academic all my life. I used to work for Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks as a wildlife biologist, and I know that my helicopter that we used to radio-collar the moose and the elk and the deer, was burning about 15 to 20 gallons of flight fuel per hour. And the Super Cub, the plane I used to track them, was burning about six to 10 gallons an hour. And if we get bigger, it takes 500,000 gallons of rocket fuel to put one satellite in orbit that will track whales and ospreys and all kinds of long-distance moving creatures.
Conservation is very energy demanding. If you make it more local, in order to teach the students how to care for God’s creation, to do a good job, we’re going to have to move them off of this campus sometimes, so we will consume gasoline and fossil fuels like that in the course of their education. So, in that sense, whether we had the wells or not, we would be a consumer of fossil fuels until we succeed in transforming our technology, which we intend to do over the long haul, so it doesn’t need carbon emission-type fuels.
Express: You’ve given this a lot of thought.
Van Dyke: The second dimension of it, which is not as much ironic as it is appropriate, is that we recognize being part of the problem of landscape fragmentation. The Au Sable well, when it was put in, removed forest, and that’s happened on over 60,000 well sites in Michigan. So, we engaged the DNR and two energy companies in a study of the best methods for reforesting abandoned oil pads, because they don’t reforest themselves. We just completed the field work on that. My goal is that this work will be submitted [for publication in an academic journal] in early 2020.
So, we recognize that we’re part of the problem. And this, I think, is the more significant problem than just the fact that the oil came out of the ground — the fact that you’ve changed the system. So, we’re working with energy companies and the DNR to find a way to put those sites back into a forest ecosystem, and then to publish that so it’s accessible and shared with the whole scientific and conservation community. So that is an appropriate act of our repentance. And the third reason why I admit I don’t feel great angst is when we consider how Au Sable acquired the endowment: It didn’t come from any scheming or deception or any kind of contractual ploy. It happened because Au Sable’s founder, acting as a disciple of Jesus Christ, very intentionally went about loving somebody that nobody else loved.
Express: I know a lot of what you do here has a national or international focus, but you also dedicate a lot of time to educating children from all over northern Michigan. Tell me about that.
Van Dyke: There’s all kinds of local engagement. One is the Environmental Leadership Intensive Program, a professional development program for current or post-graduate students who are especially interested in environmental education and in working in and someday leading a not-for-profit organization. So, they teach K–12 students from home, parochial, and public schools all around us in northern Michigan. And when they’re not teaching, they’re actively engaged with the staff in lessons about how not-for-profits are organized, how they’re led, what kind of skills you need, how they’re budgeted, so that when the person leaves, we want them to be able to be a good teacher, but also be a good staffer in an environmental organization. The teaching aspect goes back to the very beginning of the institute, and over 130,000 people have gone through the environmental program here on this campus to learn about creation care.
Express: Do you ever encounter conflicts as a Christian organization that works a lot with public schools?
Van Dyke: No. In the public school, we’re going to present the knowledge and skills and techniques needed to care for God’s creation even if the school doesn’t acknowledge that’s what it is and calls it nature, which is okay. Now, when we work in other contexts, where it’s explicitly important for them to know our mission, then we are explicit about that, and our mission is one that we state as “Au Sable inspires and educates people to serve, protect and restore God’s Earth.” And then all of the theological basis behind that has also been an important work of the institute. But we don’t encounter conflict, because we are engaged in doing work that God wants us to do, but our work in that setting is not to evangelize the students; it’s to do the work.
Express: Does having your mission based on Christianity lead to any notable difference between the Au Sable Institute and secular environmental groups?
Van Dyke: We have a lot of similarities and shared goals and aspirations, and sometimes, when we work together, some shared achievements. We have differences in what we think are the key foundational pillars of what we are doing. I would say from a Christian standpoint, there are five: We affirm biblically that all of creation is good; that is the issue of moral value. We affirm that, with moral value, there is appropriate moral agency in human beings, and the right response is to serve and protect, which comes to us from Genesis 2:15: “The Lord God took the man and put him the Garden of Eden to serve it and to protect it.”
We affirm the capacity and the responsibility and authority of human beings to actually do the work — that’s the capacity that comes from being made in the image of God, so you have the capacity to be a reflective interactant with other creatures. You can understand what their needs are and act on that. And the authority to act as a representative of God — not in physical likeness, but in personal presence — and pursue the same aims that He would have for the good of his creation.
And the fifth pillar is that we have redemptive hope. Our work has significance because all of creation is included in God’s plan of redemption and restoration, and so we don’t have to be filled with despair if we save this endangered species today, and it becomes extinct in 10 years. That would be tragic, but it’s not a basis for despair, nor is it even to be expected because we affirm and believe hopefully that God has a plan for restoring his creation, and we are acting congruently. So those are differences.
Express: I can see also that there must be a lot of overlap, also, because your objectives are going to be mostly similar.
Van Dyke: Yeah. There’s overlap there. I think one of the biggest differences is we are willing to ask a question that a lot of conservation organizations aren’t willing to ask, and that’s the “So, what?” question. So, what if we accomplish this and maybe it turns out badly in 10 years or 20? We answer that by saying there is significance to our work because it’s cooperative with and congruent with a long-term eternal destiny for creation. It’s not work that’s done in vain.
Express: What happens when you encounter conflicts between Scripture and science?
Van Dyke: Well, we don’t fundamentally encounter those conflicts. I mean, if you’re talking about a literal interpretation of six days of creation, you know, that might be a conflict if we felt compelled to adopt that view, but that’s one of many interpretations of that part of Genesis, and has been for centuries, going back to Augustine. So we see no conflict there because we’re affirming the truth of the Genesis narrative that creation is an act of God; it didn’t create itself, it doesn’t sustain itself, and it doesn’t have goodness in itself. Its goodness is imparted to it and made a part of it by God. So, no. In terms of specifics, we don’t experience and see conflicts between science and Scripture. Science is not designed to answer the questions that Scripture is answering.
Express: Tell me about how you went from being a Montana conservation officer to the director of Au Sable.
Van Dyke: For the record, I wasn’t a conservation officer, although I helped them sometimes in law enforcement. I was a wildlife research biologist. I had spent a little time in academia before that at a small Christian college in Indiana, then five years in Montana, then back to academia at a Christian college in northwestern Iowa, then to Wheaton [College, in Illinois]. I think in that whole spread I was always trying to express my faith in what I did and what I said and what I wrote. So, I published a lot of scientific studies, but I also wrote books about Christian ethics and environmental care. One’s called “Redeeming Creation,” and the other is called “Between Heaven and Earth.” Those are two of the best known. I also was trying to contribute to my own field, so I produced a textbook in conservation biology.
Express: It seems like you had these two things that made you ideal for your current position.
Van Dyke: It gave me some positive characteristics. There were other people that were considered, so I’m grateful and pleased the trustees finally selected me, but I think all I was really trying to do my whole life was be myself. I wasn’t trying to impress one side or the other by being something other than what I was. It is odd, because sometimes you don’t know quite where you fit in, but Au Sable is one place where I do.
Express: What do you consider the most pressing environmental issue facing northern Lower Michigan?
Van Dyke: We have several. Maybe you’ve heard there’s going to be a septic summit, in Traverse City on Nov. 6. Fifty states in the U.S., and there’s only one that doesn’t have a statewide septic ordinance. Yet Michigan defines itself by its water. “Four out of five Great Lakes prefer Michigan” — you can see that on bumper stickers. Right here, we’re within 40 minutes of the headwaters of six rivers. Two major fish hatcheries are within 40 minutes. One is a federal fish hatchery, and one is a state fish hatchery. The state fish hatchery, in Grayling, is probably about 35–40 minutes away.
Most of the people living in the North are living on wells on their own property. Nevertheless, septic ordinances that regulate septic fields and their septic tanks is the only thing — if they exist at all — that stand between them and the pollution of the water they drink. So that’s a major issue for Michigan to address.
A second problem is the restoration of vacated well and gas pads. We’ve got 60,000 of those — that’s probably close to 120,000 acres of land — and yet there’s no systemic plan as to how that land is going to be restored and to what purpose. That’s starting — I don’t want to give the DNR a bad name, they are startingto do it — but it still has a long way to go.
And the third is to remove any significant threat from Pipeline 5 [Enbridge energy company’s expired pipeline that carries petroleum from western Canada to eastern Canada through the Straits of Mackinaw], either through some kind of underground technology or shutting it down.
Express: What worldwide environmental issue concerns you the most?
Van Dyke: Climate — well, two things. I was about to say climate change, and that’s still true, but climate change is really now one of a number of anthropogenic affects. You may know that even the official geologic societies are considering renaming the current epoch, because human beings are no longer just a disturbance that we have to mitigate. Humans are the driving force, geologically, biologically, ecologically, and climatologically. There are only perhaps 20 percent of ice-free terrestrial lands today that could be classed as wildlands or natural environments.
Everything else is either human-inhabited or strongly human modified. So even the old maps of global ecosystems are, for most of the world, obsolete — no longer useful. So, what you’ve got to do is really figure out is not how to treat humans as a "disturbance," and then remove the disturbance from the system. Humans beings are no longer "disturbing" natural systems; they are shaping them, because human beings are driving the system, so you have to figure out how you do conservation in a human-dominated nature. That’s the big global issue, can you have a responsible Anthropocene [epoch]?
Now, climate change is one of the biggest drivers. It’s one of the most pervasive anthropogenic effects, and it affects all conservation planning today. So, it’s probably the No. 1 hazard to deal with, because your risk is so high and is already materializing into a hazard. You’re already seeing the hazardous effects of climate change.
Express: Do you find it frustrating that more Christians don’t think the way you do about this?
Van Dyke: I guess I don’t dwell on it to think of it as a frustration. It’s one more problem to solve. There are many Christians who are active and quite eloquent. There are whole Christian organizations dedicated entirely to conservation, some dedicated entirely to climate change. I think that the larger body of evangelicals in the United States will have to at some point decide we’re going to be more discerning about individual issues and less tribal. Because there’s always a tendency of people to gravitate together to someone who holds out the promise that they will increase your influence — especially when you’re feeling your influence in society is being taken away by other sources.
So, in that sense, evangelicals as a political group tend to be linked together with a constellation of issues. That’s not entirely unjustified, but some of it is, because some of the more in-depth surveys reveal that only about half of the voters who identify themselves as evangelicals actually hold evangelical beliefs. Why that half wants to be identified as evangelical, I’m still puzzled.
Express: Are you saying that there are evangelicals out there that claim the political end of the movement but don’t care about the spiritual side of it?
Van Dyke: Yes, that’s exactly what I’m saying. And there’s a lot of them. And the media often overlook very prominent evangelicals doing good work.