Word came a week ago of the passing of a fierce fighter for a spectacular dune complex in southwest Michigan.  The world may not remember Don Wilson, but it should.  Because of him and community allies Warren Dunes State Park contains marvels of global significance.

I met Don in 1983, near the climax of a long battle between industry giant Martin Marietta and a band of stalwart citizens fighting to preserve a dune area crowned by Mt. Edward. (The story of the fight itself is summarized below in an excerpt from Ruin and Recovery.)  Don and I were not immediate friends. Employed by state government at the time, I was suspect to him.  I understood why.  State officials had belittled him and his fellow dune fighters as hyperemotional.  Or as Don put it:

“[The state government] historically steps back as industry steps forward to as to accommodate the industry, which is perceived as having the money and power versus the public groups who are seen by the state agencies as financially weak and not organized. Through the years when I was in Lansing, I was occasionally told by DNR personnel not to get emotionally involved. I explained that if I weren’t emotionally involved I wouldn’t be there, that unlike government people I wasn’t being paid so I could be as unconcerned as they.”

After the fight ended — with the citizen group Hope for the Dunes winning preservation of 95% of the site — Don and I became friends.  That didn’t mean he spared me criticism when he thought I was mistaken.  Don wasn’t that kind of man.  He was direct, and that blunt instrument helped protect a place with which even the most prosaic personality can’t help but be smitten.

The forest of Michigan environmental advocates is now one tree thinner.

The Battle for Bridgman Dunes

When the Martin Marietta Corporation received tentative approval in 1979 from the DNR to mine 144 acres around a 225-foot-tall dune near Bridgman known as Mount Edwards, Wayne Schmidt of the Michigan United Conservation Clubs exploded. “If Mount Edwards isn’t the best of what we have left, then where will the DNR draw the line?”  Dr. Warren (Herb) Wagner, a University of Michigan botanist, called the site part of “the richest dune community of any dune complex in the world.”  Wagner added in an interview quoted in the Detroit Free Press, “I don’t think we have the right to destroy areas so rare as this one, especially for a short-term gain. That sand will only last the miners a few years, then they will have to go somewhere else.”

The public pressure had an impact.  DNR Director Howard Tanner told Martin Marietta in September of 1979 that he intended to deny the permit because, under terms of the law, the proposal would have “an irreparable harmful effect on the environment.”  But this was not a final victory for the dunes.  Martin Marietta won an appeal of Tanner’s ruling to an administrative law judge.  In 1981, this verdict came before the Natural Resources Commission itself.  At an emotional public hearing, both sides implored the commissioners.  “It took 8,000 years to create these dunes,” said Terrence Grady, an assistant attorney general.  “It would take only a couple of years to destroy them.”  The DNR pointed out that foundries did not have to rely on dunes for sand supplies, since a General Motors casting plant in Saginaw used sand dredged from Saginaw Bay.

“You’ve got to consider the economics of the situation,” said John Crow, an attorney representing Martin Marietta. He said the mining of 400,000 tons of sand annually would provide $325,000 each year in payroll to local workers, and could last 20 years or more.  Pointing out that the state owned nearly 28 miles of Lake Michigan shoreline in parks, he added, “I guess my point is that we’re saving enough land already.”  In the depth of Michigan’s worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, the argument carried weight with some members of the Commission.  “How many places do I need to go to look at beautiful rocks?” asked Charles G. Younglove, a commissioner who was also an official of the United Steelworkers Union.  The Commission voted 4-3 to approve the mining in November 1981.

Even there the battle did not end.  Michigan Attorney General Frank Kelley sued the Commission to stop the mining and the operation was stalemated for nearly three years.  In 1984, the Michigan chapter of the Nature Conservancy and Thomas Washington of the Michigan United Conservation Clubs, who chaired the board of the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund, helped broker a deal in which the state would buy most of the site from the company, protecting Mount Edward while allowing limited mining.

This resolution did not wipe away the bitter taste in the mouths of advocates who had fought to protect the area.  Wilson noted that Martin Marietta wooed Bridgman city officials with food and drink and had access to state officials that a volunteer citizens group could not have. He also argued that the end of mining at the Bridgman site only pushed the miners to other, equally vulnerable areas along the shoreline. Still, the advocacy of Hope for the Dunes had its effect: after the group’s formation, no mining took place at Bridgman other than a small 5-acre area granted by a local judge.