Environment Picture

MEC Awards

Lasting environmental protection is earned through a synergy of local activism and institutional leadership, which is why the Michigan Environmental Council annually bestows a pair of awards: One honoring grassroots leadership and the other recognizing distinguished vision by public or private sector leaders. Below is more information about these two awards and the environmental leaders who have received them.

Helen & William Milliken Distinguished Service Award Petoskey Prize for Grassroots Leadership

Helen & William Milliken Distinguished Service Award

The Helen & William Milliken Distinguished Service Award recognizes individuals who show outstanding leadership, enduring commitment and extraordinary public service in protecting natural resources at the local, state and national levels.

2015 Recipient: Andy Buchsbaum
Andy Buchsbaum With the 2008 Great Lakes Compact and the 2009 Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, advocates achieved two once-a-generation policy victories in back-to-back fashion. It’s no coincidence that Andy Buchsbaum helped captain both winning teams. Now the national Vice President of Conservation Action for the National Wildlife Federation, Buchsbaum long served as the Regional Executive Director of NWF’s Great Lakes Regional Center in Ann Arbor. He co-founded and for seven years co-chaired the Healing Our Waters – Great Lakes Coalition—the leading nongovernmental voice for the GLRI, which to date has netted $1.9 billion for more than 2,500 restoration projects. And he was a lead negotiator in securing the Compact, the landmark accord to protect the Great Lakes from harmful withdrawals within the basin and diversion outside it. Buchsbaum also played a key role in passing Michigan’s Polluter Pay Law for toxic cleanups, and he was part of the legal team behind the ongoing, $29 million cleanup of dioxin pollution along the Titabawassee River. Buchsbaum has shared his deep knowledge of law and science through congressional testimony and major research reports, and passes along that expertise to future leaders as an adjunct law professor at the University of Michigan.

2014 Recipient: Rich Vander Veen
Rich Vander Veen’s Gratiot County Wind Project is a stunning symbol along U.S. 127 of Michigan's accelerating transition to a clean energy economy. But his greatest contribution happened at hundreds of kitchen tables that cannot be seen from the highway. Guided by deep respect for farmers and the views they shared with him over countless cups of coffee, Vander Veen carefully designed a 133-turbine wind farm that powers more than 50,000 homes and pours millions into local schools, village tax rolls and landowners' pocketbooks, all while keeping family farms intact. In doing so, he established a nationally recognized community participation model that helps local officials and residents embrace and share in the rich benefits of wind power. Vander Veen also was instrumental in advocating for and shaping the 2008 renewable energy law that kick-started Michigan's clean energy industry and helped make wind a fast-growing and increasingly affordable power source. In addition to his leadership as a clean energy visionary, he is a member of the West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum and president of the John D. Voelker Foundation, which works to protect watersheds and provides scholarships to Native American law students.

2013 Recipient: Dave Dempsey
For three decades Dave Dempsey has been one of the most respected voices for strong public policies to protect Michigan’s environment. His expansive knowledge of the science and stories that make up our state’s conservation history has earned the admiration of friends and foes alike. Dempsey served as environmental policy advisor to former Michigan Governor Jim Blanchard and is the author of seven books, including Ruin and Recovery—a must-read for anyone seeking to understand environmental policy in the Great Lakes State. President Bill Clinton appointed Dempsey to the Great Lakes Fishery Commission in 1994. He is a former member of the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund Board; served in leadership positions at Clean Water Action and Michigan Environmental Council; and taught environmental policy at Michigan State University for several years. Dempsey currently is policy advisor at the International Joint Commission, where he helps guide strategic initiatives to protect the waters separating the United States and Canada.

2012 Recipient: Rosina M. Bierbaum
Rosina M. Bierbaum was on stage for the first Earth Day in 1970, honored for winning a high school regional science fair. She's been on one stage or another as an advocate for our planet ever since.

The former Dean of the University of Michigan School of Natural Resources and Environment (SNRE) has worked for decades at the complex intersection of education, science and public policy, helping to nurture understanding of and action on environmental issues.

Early on she thought the earnest and quiet life of a marine biologist was her calling. Then somewhat reluctantly, she applied for and then won a highly prized Congressional Fellowship. Once in Washington, the opportunity opened her eyes to the stunning dearth of scientific input into important matters of environmental policy. She saw scientists testifying to empty chairs at Congressional committee hearings. She watched far-reaching decisions made without scientific input. She was appalled. And she was hooked.

Today, her impact extends from the Oval Office – she is a former acting Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and currently serves on President Obama's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology-to the newly minted SNRE graduates whose lives and careers she helped shape. And she has been appointed by the governor to two State of Michigan task forces-the Michigan Climate Action Council and the Michigan Chronic Wasting Disease Task Force.

Her guiding mission as a scientist, dean and now, as a professor at SNRE, has been to inject good science into public policy decisions, and to train new generations to do the same.

2011 Recipient: Becky Humphries
Fishing with her father taught Becky Humphries the skills she's relied on to navigate a distinguished career protecting Michigan's natural resources. Patience, perseverance and respect guided her as she moved through 32 years with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, culminating with a six-year stretch as director that ended earlier this year.

Becky's work as an award-winning wildlife biologist and her achievements in making the DNR more transparent, managing state forests more sustainably, and adeptly navigating a turbulent era in the state's conservation history have earned her the Michigan Environmental Council's 2011 Helen and William Milliken Distinguished Service Award. An avid angler and hunter, Becky's passion for the outdoors was stoked from a very young age. The family hunted rabbit together and had a kennel full of beagles. She translated those passions into work with the DNR, first as a field biologist and later as an administrator. In 2004 she became the first woman to lead the agency. She was universally praised as an open-minded and inclusive leader who implemented important changes in an era of declining revenues and political tumult. Her blend of policy expertise and hands-on understanding of the state's woods and waters helped her bridge gaps between the conservation and environmental communities—and won her fans from across the political spectrum. For decades to come, Becky's legacy of distinguished public service—which continues to grow in her new role at Ducks Unlimited—will live on in Michigan's magnificent parks and the forests, fields and fishing holes that inspire future conservation leaders.

2010 Recipient: Faye Alexander Nelson
The mighty Detroit River is inseparable from the great city's history and identity. But until recently, the water was barricaded behind a wall of industrial and commercial buildings in downtown Detroit -- inaccessible and virtually invisible. Enter Faye Alexander Nelson, president and CEO of the Detroit RiverFront Conservancy. This native Detroiter's vision, persistence and passion are the driving forces behind the creation of the Detroit RiverWalk project, which has reclaimed the river for the city's residents, workers, and visitors. The RiverWalk project will include more than five miles of pathways, gardens, benches, and gathering spots. It has already revolutionized how residents and visitors view the city and its relationship to its namesake river. Revitalizing Michigan's city centers is key to creating vibrant, thriving metropolitan hubs and slowing the growth of sprawl. Faye's tireless work along Detroit's most spectacular natural asset is a splendid example of translating that ideal into reality.

2009 Recipient: Lana Pollack
Lana Pollack, one of the leading defenders of Michigan's natural resources and environmental health, is the 2009 recipient of the Helen & William Milliken Distinguished Service Award. In her 12 years as president of the Michigan Environmental Council, Pollack led the organization through a period of dramatic growth. She built MEC into a powerful and respected voice for Michigan's environment at the State Capitol and with our elected representatives in Washington, DC. Prior to her tenure at MEC, Lana served Michigan for 12 years in the State Senate, where she earned a reputation as a committed and skilled advocate for the environment and other progressive causes. Pollack's ability to influence public policy, shape public attitudes and even win the admiration of her critics is grounded in her exceptional political instincts, keen understanding of the science behind environmental issues, and willingness to speak truth to power.

2008 Recipient: Bunyan Bryant, Ph.D.
Through his pioneering research and writing and soft-spoken determination, Bryant sparked national awareness of Environmental Justice issues and helped build a global movement for change. Today, innumerable studies and reams of data confirm the truth – low-income neighborhoods and communities of color suffer from asthma rates, cancers and debilitating illness because of pollution that far exceeds normal or average. Dr. Bryant has organized national and international conferences on the issue, and brought awareness and change to the highest levels of policy-making. As a beloved long-time teacher – and the director of the Environmental Justice Initiative at the University of Michigan School of Natural Resource and Environment – Bunyan is inspiring a new generation of environmental leaders who understand the deep connections between environmental science, public health, social justice and the arts.
Download Michigan Environmental Report article reprint (bunyanbryant.pdf)

2007 Recipient: Mary C. Brown
Mary C. Brown served 18 years in the state legislature where she skillfully blended visionary principles with pragmatic strategies to realize gains in natural resource policies. It was the political career of a public servant whose depth of knowledge was unparalleled on an array of issues, including social justice, environmental stewardship, clean air and gender equity. Her hands-on reputation became legendary among her colleagues in the State House. They knew exactly what to do when unfamiliar legislation came up for a hurried vote: Ask Mary, she’ll know all about it. As a result, here fingerprints remain on dozens of important state laws that still provide a framework for enlightened resource stewardship. Retirement from the legislature in 1994 changed the venue where she practices her particular brand of activism, but not her tenacious approach. Her lifelong passion for working with the Girl Scouts continues. She also is on the boards of the State YMCA, the Michigan Environmental Council, American Lung Association, and is a state Natural Resources Commission member. She is a founding member of the Kalamazoo Environmental Council and the Coalition for Urban Redevelopment in Kalamazoo.

2006 Recipient: Congressman Vernon Ehlers (R-Grand Rapids)
Vernon Ehlers embraced the conservation philosophies of President Theodore Roosevelt during his acceptance speech, invoking Roosevelt’s crusade for stewardship before an audience of friends, colleagues and constituents. Ehlers, a physicist and one of the few scientists in Congress, earned the award by standing up for conservation principles, often leading other moderate Republicans to tip the scales in favor of environmental protection on close votes. He has voted consistently for fuel economy standards that protect the air and reduce dependence on foreign oil, worked to keep the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge safe from invasive drilling, and consistently championed bills and budgets to establish firewalls against Great Lakes pollution and invasive species. “Vern has been a friend and ally to common-sense approaches to creating sound environmental policy,” MEC President Lana Pollack said. “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out clean air and water is essential to the economy and public health, but it doesn’t hurt to have a scientist like Vern on the job in Washington.”

2005 Recipient: Congressman John D. Dingell (D-Dearborn)
John D. Dingell has served Michigan and the nation for five decades as a legislative champion for the environment. He was the driving force behind the creation of the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge and he is resolutely fighting current attempts to roll back important air and water protections. While the Milliken Award is not a lifetime achievement award, conservation and environmental advocates applauded Congressman Dingell’s historic work to defeat the National Timber Supply Act and his exceptional leadership in passing the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act.

2004 Recipient: Peter Karmanos, Jr.
Compuware co-founder Peter Karmanos, Jr. placed a winning bet on Detroit by investing $400 million in a magnificent new 1.1 million square foot downtown headquarters for Michigan’s largest technology company and by leading the restoration of historic Campus Martius. In doing so, he not only has brought thousands of new jobs into the heart of the city and sparked a building boom that is changing its reputation, but also is helping to reshape land-use patterns in the region in a sensible and sustainable direction.

2003 Recipient: Marlene "Marty" Fluharty
As Executive Director of the Americana Foundation, Marty has provided national leadership on land use reform, farmland preservation, growth management and other environmental issues for 34 years. She has served on the Michigan Natural Resources Commission, the Michigan Environmental Review Board, and the Michigan Land Use Leadership Council. Currently, she is a member of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality Advisory Council. A dedicated Sierra Club volunteer and current President of the Sierra Club Foundation, Marty was honored with the Milliken Award for “being a role model to women, environmental professionals, and government officials by demonstrating unwavering integrity, a deep love of nature, an easy manner, and quiet, skillful advocacy.”

2002 Recipient: Peter M. Wege
Peter Wege is a Grand Rapids businessman, philanthropist, gather and heralded environmental visionary. Wege has been devoted to cleaning up the environment and saving the Great Lakes for decades. Steelcase, the office furniture company that Wege's father and partners started in 1912, is now the largest office furniture manufacturer in the world and recycles close to 88 percent of its materials. Wege's book, Economicology: The Eleventh Commandment, conveys the important connections between ecology and economy. Wege's many contributions to our Great Lakes State include:

  • Founding the Center for Environmental Study, an organization in Grand Rapids dedicated to increasing public awareness of the environment, in 1969.
  • Serving as Chairman of the National Pollution and Prevention Center at the University of Michigan.
  • Chairing the Advisory Board for the Franciscan Life Process Center, a group of Franciscan sisters committed to living in harmony with the natural world and educating others about ecology and spirituality.
  • Endowing the Peter M. Wege Chair of Sustainable Systems at the University of Michigan School of Natural Resources and Environment.
  • Providing millions of dollars in support of environmental protection and conservation initiatives through the Wege Foundation, which he created in 1967.

2001 Recipient: Peter W. Stroh
Peter W. Stroh is the architect of the Detroit River's designation as an American Heritage River. This follows his remarkable history of brownfield investment in redeveloping Detroit; his considerable contributions to the Nature Conservancy's work in saving Michigan's landscape; and his leadership rile in founding Conservation International.

Petoskey Prize for Grassroots Leadership

MEC inaugurated the Petoskey Prize for Grassroots Leadership in 2001. The prize is given annually to individuals whose commitment, creativity and courage have inspired others to safeguard Michigan's air, land and water for future generations. Winners are able to designate $5,000 to the Michigan environmental organization of their choice.

2015 Recipient: Bill Craig
Bill Craig A tough-as-nails Navy veteran—often seen chest-deep in the Rouge River, chain-sawing canoe routes through fallen timber—Bill Craig is also an effective educator about the habitat benefits of leaving most of that wood in the stream, a patient nature guide for local school kids, and an eloquent speaker when inspiring landowners and government officials to do what’s right for southeast Michigan’s waterways and wildlife. Since 1988 he has organized a cleanup site for the annual Rouge Rescue, dirtying his hands with other volunteers to pick up trash, remove invasive species and plant native vegetation. He also has spent 25 years as President of the Holliday Nature Preserve Association. Born of a dispute over a proposed golf course development, the group has since worked to unite the community around the 500-acre Wayne County sanctuary as a beloved refuge for recreation and education.

2014 Recipient: Steve Hamilton
Steve Hamilton Michigan State University ecologist Steve Hamilton is a rare species: an accomplished scientist who uses his knowledge to inform the public, engage the media, consult with decision makers and champion environmental protection. His professionalism and science-based advocacy have made the Kalamazoo River Watershed Council-where he has served as president since 2006-a go-to source of insights and expertise for those working to preserve and restore the river. When the Kalamazoo suffered the largest inland oil spill in U.S. history, Hamilton helped residents, journalists, government agencies and the responsible company sort out the ramifications and monitor the cleanup. His friends and colleagues in Southwest Michigan credit Hamilton-and his countless hours of generous volunteerism and hard work-with energizing the community to experience, appreciate and protect the Kalamazoo and its tributaries.

2013 Recipient: Bob Andrus
Bob Andrus Bob Andrus has been building grassroots river conservation movements and motivating legions of volunteers to restore Michigan’s legendary trout fishing waters for 30 years. Wading in the Au Sable River and its tributaries to conduct stream erosion surveys, cedar plantings, insect surveys and fish habitat construction is simply part of the annual rhythm of his life. Andrus is founder of the Au Sable River Watershed Council and past chair of Michigan Trout Unlimited, where his hands-on knowledge of our waterways helped to shape wise public policy positions. In the words of an admirer, Bob’s ability to motivate volunteers and partner organizations to accomplish large-scale projects "has resulted in the Au Sable River being the jewel it is today." If only there was a Bob Andrus looking over each of Michigan’s 12,000 miles of cold water trout streams!

2012 Recipient: Blair Miller
The derelict railroad trestle that Blair Miller helped rebuild is an apt metaphor for his work to protect Michigan's natural resources and quality of life. Since retiring to rural Vermontville, Miller has achieved success by building bridges literally and figuratively-across sectors, communities and generations. He was nominated for the Petoskey Prize for Environmental Leadership by the Michigan Trails and Greenways Alliance, where he volunteers.

Miller's enthusiasm for turning an unused rail corridor into a recreational asset, while protecting a virtually undisturbed portion of the Thornapple River watershed, has gone viral. His vision convinced local school officials to create a Safe Routes to School project allowing students from Vermontville and Nashville to walk and bike safely to Maple Valley High School. He also inspired the school’s building trades students to renovate the rundown trestle and negotiated a deal with a corporate partner to improve access to the trail by filling in a huge trench.

Miller's many admirers say it's his hands-on leadership style that makes him effective. He's volunteered hundreds of hours securing grants, creating educational materials and building partnerships. And he gets his hands dirty too, as he did when logjams prevented paddlers from floating the Thornapple and he donned waders to clear the way.

We're proud to honor Blair Miller's optimism, resourcefulness and old-fashioned hard work.

2011 Recipient: Ken Smith
Ken Smith's determination and good humor transformed an argument over a road project into an unprecedented citizen-led blueprint for growing the Grand Traverse region's economy while preserving its natural beauty and identity as an outdoor recreation paradise. Ken was integral in stopping an ill-advised bridge over the Boardman River and a highway bypass through its lush valley. He leveraged that success to initiate the Grand Vision, an ongoing project uniting residents of five counties to create a sustainable roadmap for Smart Growth in the region. It was a tremendous step forward for the region's future—a visionary long-term planning effort that involved 15,000 citizens and public officials. The Grand Vision may be Ken's grandest achievement, but it is only one in a long series of hard-won victories. He was instrumental in an effort that led to a pollution cleanup in Boardman Lake, created a legal fund to help grassroots groups win environmental battles, and helped secure federal protection for a pristine section of the Crystal River.

2010 Recipient: Margaret Weber
Margaret Weber's tenacious efforts to improve Detroit through waste reduction and recycling span decades, and they are paying huge dividends today. Weber, a pioneer in the City of Detroit's blossoming initiative for greener waste options, leads the Rosedale Recycles organization, a volunteer model for other neighborhoods in the city. Her leadership has played an integral part in successful efforts to establish a pilot curbside recycling program, and in the ongoing battle to close the Detroit trash incinerator. Her inspirational leadership and unflagging devotion to a better Detroit have helped turn the tide against the expensive polluting incinerator and in favor of cheaper, cleaner options.

2009 Recipient: Rusty Gates
Quietly, tenaciously, and with courage borne of his convictions, Rusty Gates spent a lifetime protecting and improving his beloved Au Sable River. That labor of love earned him the 2009 Petoskey Prize for Environmental Leadership. Gates passed away in December of 2009, leaving a tremendous legacy of environmental protection. He organized a nationwide network of experts and volunteers ready to respond when the alarm sounded. They won David-versus-Goliath legal battles with oil and gas developers, halted plans to pump contaminated water into the watershed, and turned out phenomenal numbers of volunteers for river cleanup days. Gates owned Gates Au Sable Lodge near Grayling and was an icon in the fly fishing community. He was a driving force behind the successful establishment of “no-kill” fishing along the “Holy Waters” stretch of the river. That controversial campaign earned him death threats, but has proved an unqualified conservation success.

2008 Recipient: Carol Drake
Carol Drake is on the front lines of the Environmental Justice movement that Bunyan Bryant helped build. Jean Klock Park – Drake’s playground since childhood – provides residents of economically challenged Benton Harbor with free, public access to stunning dunes and a sandy Lake Michigan beach. When developers and their political allies moved to take away huge swaths of the park for an exclusive golf course, Drake rallied her community to stand up for this amazing piece of land which was given to residents a century ago as a permanent gift for public recreation. In facing the almost daily challenges the developers put before her, Drake displays the “commitment, creativity and courage” that the Petoskey Prize recognizes each year.

2007 Recipient: Lynn Henning
Lynn Henning was a content farmer. Then massive, polluting, mega-farms surrounded her family home near rural Hudson, making the air putrid, turning creeks into open sewers and operating with virtual impunity. Henning fought back. She taught herself to track and document pollution. She learned law, chemistry, biology and bureaucracy. She took on the corporate Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) owners, state regulators and local officials, forcing them to confront the problem. She has become the epitome of a grassroots environmental leader. As vice chair of Environmentally Concerned Citizens for South Central Michigan and a water sentinel with the Sierra Club’s Michigan Chapter, Henning now monitors CAFOs statewide and trains others from across the Midwest. Her diligence has led to more than 200 Clean Water Act citations against Michigan CAFOs in recent years, and progress toward changing the laws and rules safeguarding public water and air.

2006 Recipient: Don A. Griffin
Don A. Griffin worked for decades to restore and protect the Detroit River. He passed away Nov. 23, 2006, but left behind a legacy of environmental stewardship and enlightened activism. Griffin helped found the Friends of the Detroit River 15 years ago and was instrumental in a long battle to protect the Humbug Marsh from condominiums and other development that would have wrecked the last significant coastal wetland on the U.S. side of the river. The marsh is now the centerpiece of a thriving Detroit International Wildlife Refuge and an example of the victories that can be achieved with tenacious defense of important natural resources.

2005 Recipient: Michelle Hurd Riddick
From bringing recycling to Saginaw to defending children against lead poisoning and demanding cleanup of toxic dioxin, Michelle Hurd Riddick, an emergency nurse by profession, has steadfastly fought to protect Michigan’s residents and natural resources for more than a decade. Through education, lobbying and old-fashioned organizing, Hurd Riddick and her colleagues have pressed the State of Michigan and Dow Chemical Corporation to inform and protect the thousands of people living in an area of the Tittabawassee River floodplain contaminated with dangerous levels of dioxin. In doing so, she has spoken truth to power in the face of great pressure to be silent and demonstrated the power of a determined individual to make a difference.

2004 Recipient: Terry Swier
Terry Swier and her colleagues at Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation have engaged in a “David and Goliath” struggle to challenge a multinational corporation’s right to withdraw and bottle water in Mecosta County. With tenacious organizing skills, Swier has led efforts to enlist some 1,800 members of the community in a formidable grassroots campaign and to raise $400,000 for the effort, largely through community-based techniques such as bake sales, yard sales, and car washes. In the process, she is reshaping the water rights debate in our state to better reflect the public’s interest in Michigan’s most important natural resource.

2003 Recipient: Diane Hebertv
Diane Hebert is recognized for her "25 years of heroic, grassroots organizing and leadership fighting for the people and community of Midland, Mich." Midland — home to the largest chemical company in the world — is a healthier place thanks to Diane's tireless efforts. The founder of Environmental Health Watch, she has increased public awareness of the health hazards of dioxin through high-profile events, unflagging advocacy and the promotion of science in the public interest. She brought dioxin issues to the attention of the media and forced direct action requiring corporate and governmental accountability for toxic pollution in Midland.

2002 Recipients: Alison & David Swan
Alison and David Swan moved to West Michigan in the early 1990s and quickly made the Saugatuck State Park their regular walking site. When they heard that the City of Holland, Laketown Township, and Allegan County had applied to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources for land exchanges that would allow them to build a water intake, pumping station, pipeline and treatment plant within the boundaries of Saugatuck Dunes State Park, the Swans immediately took action. They formed the Concerned Citizens for Saugatuck Dunes State Park, which continues to grow and fight to protect this precious resource. Their grassroots movement to stop the proposed facility pulled together 600 people, making the issue impossible for lakeshore citizens and politicians to ignore.

2001 Recipient (inaugural winner): Debbie Romak
Debbie Romak fought for 11 years to ban commercial hazardous waste injection wells in Romulus. MEC recognizes her expertise in hazardous waste injection; her success in persuading local, state and federal officials to oppose these wells; her commitment to public service; and her efforts to found a new environmental organization, Romulus Environmentalists Care About People (RECAP).

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