Environment Picture

Blair Miller: Building a sense of place in his community

Trail restoration borne of sweat equity, terrier-like tenacity
Blair Miller’s life is a contact sport.

He’s scrapped with what he describes as the “good old boy network” in rural Vermontville Township, where he was elected to the township board before getting broomed in a recall election.

He learned to fly planes in three weeks—insisting on landing at Chicago’s Midway Airport during training because: “If I’m going to fly, I’m going to learn how to do it in the busiest place.” And in response to a running dispute with the University of Michigan, Miller once mowed a massive block “M”—framed by a circle with a line slashed through it—in the fallow field outside his home. Private planes would fly by to see the oversized protest.

“I’m pretty intense,” he said. “And it can get me into trouble.”

But Miller’s most recent obsession—and the one that has earned him the Michigan Environmental Council’s 2012 Petoskey Prize for Environmental Leadership—is a labor of love that has called upon Miller’s people skills as much as his unbridled energy and ingenuity.

He is the force behind the unearthing and restoration of a forgotten stretch of public trail and greenway connecting Maple Valley High School with the business district in Vermontville—a rural town about 25 miles southwest of Lansing. The 1.5-mile restoration includes a trestle spanning the Thornapple River and protection for natural vegetation and wildlife along the river floodplain that has remained virtually unchanged in 200 years.

Community catalyst
The project has been a catalyst for environmental education in the schools and community, non-motorized recreation, including students going to and from school, future plans for more trail restoration, and a river cleanup that has made a stretch of the Thornapple navigable for the first time in decades.

Miller enlisted the assistance of the schools, the community, volunteer groups, the federal Safe Routes to School Program and a partnership with MEC member group Michigan Trails and Greenways Alliance (MTGA).

MTGA nominated Miller for the Petoskey Prize, which is awarded annually to a volunteer leader who demonstrates courage, commitment and creativity in protecting Michigan’s natural resources and quality of life.

“In 15 years of work with trails, I have seldom seen the level of enthusiasm, hard work and perseverance in the face of adversity I have witnessed in Blair Miller,” wrote MTGA Executive Director Nancy Krupiarz in her nominating letter.

Building alliances
Miller’s terrier-like tenacity was the key to the restoration project. And, he had something to prove.

“I’m going to show them I can build a township as well as tear it apart,” said Miller, who has spent hundreds of unpaid hours poring over old maps, wrestling with bureaucracies, removing logjams from the river and doing the hands-on work of moving earth, plowing snow and policing graffiti along the trail.

Along the way, Miller has seized on opportunities to build alliances. He formed the Maple Valley Greenways Committee to spearhead the trail restoration and other projects, enlisted the high school building trades class to help construct the trestle, and secured grant dollars and project partners ranging from the school district to corporate sponsors.

He initiated a Safe Routes to School program at Maple Valley Middle School and is working to extend the trail another 1.5 miles to Nashville.

“Blair’s commitment to community, family and education is outstanding and well deserved of many community awards,” wrote Maple Valley High School vocational trades instructor Jeffrey R. Seavolt in a nomination letter. “His support is never ending and truly sincere.”

Michigan roots
Miller was born in Holly, MI, and grew up in Fenton, MI. He learned electronics in the Air Force and worked in the early computer industry and other high-technology jobs. He eventually joined the Continental Coffee Company, where he created cost-saving systems for tracking products and equipment that were modeled by companies across the country. He also worked for Starbucks exclusive equipment supplier, FETCO, charged with all the company’s equipment and employee technical training.

Along the way, he learned the science behind making a perfect cup of coffee—and can still talk your ear off about the intricacies of brew time and temperature. He held a patent for an on-demand hot water heater that was purchased by the Carrier company, and still has an elaborate electronics laboratory in his basement.

He and his wife Lorraine searched the nation for the right retirement property and found it on a 33-acre parcel of rolling fields and maple woods in Vermontville. The home he built, largely by hand, is sandwiched between Miller’s apple orchard (he used to make hard cider for the local brewery) and his sugar bush, from which he harvests syrup for sale every spring.

Lorraine has made the grounds a haven for birds of all types, especially hummingbirds that flock to the feeders in such numbers that the racket from the tiny birds is deafening after babies fledge in the spring. They have one son, Blair John Miller, a University of Michigan graduate who works for the Michigan Catholic Conference in Lansing.

His refuge
With a sweep of his arms, he happily declares, “At night you cannot see a single artificial light from here.”

Miller’s homestead is his refuge, but he is committed to making a positive difference beyond its borders.

“We’re living this life here from dreams and plans made long ago,” he said from the deck overlooking his maple grove. “This is such a beautiful, special place. And I want to share something with the community to ensure it retains that character for future generations.” 

Past winners of the Petoskey Prize are Debbie Romak, Alison & David Swan, Diane Hebert, Terry Swier, Michelle Hurd Riddick, Don A. Griffin, Lynn Henning, Carol Drake, Rusty Gates, Margaret Weber and Ken Smith.
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