Dave Dempsey: Protecting Michigan wilderness is one of Dale Kildee’s enduring legacies

October 20, 2021 3:07 am

Sturgeon River Gorge | Keep the U.P. Wild photo

When former U.S. Rep. Dale Kildee died last week at the age of 92, admirers celebrated his work on behalf of the community of Flint, his support for education and labor and his personal decency. Each of these merited praise, but one aspect of his career escaped mention in most quarters – his environmental values.

A lifetime 89% supporter of the environment as measured by the League of Conservation Voters scorecard, Kildee led the successful fight to protect over 90,000 acres of wilderness in 10 areas on Michigan’s National Forest lands. It wasn’t easy.

Former U.S. Rep. Dale Kildee

The legislation Kildee authored was designed to protect old growth forests, lakes tucked into wild areas far from development and Great Lakes shoreline. The then 58-year-old Kildee, as the Sierra Club’s Anne Woiwode observed, was not an outdoorsman by any means: “He even purchased and donned blue jeans to visit the areas with Forest Service personnel and others.” 

So why did Kildee take an interest in wilderness areas far from his district?  A former seminarian and devout Catholic, Kildee was motivated in part by religious belief – and by political realism. He said in Congressional testimony that the bill would preserve the lands “much as they came from the hand of God.  They will be protected, not only from manmade disturbances, but also from changes in the bureaucratic whims of each new administration here in Washington.”

Although wilderness protection has dedicated, enthusiastic defenders like the Sierra Club, the leader in organizing support for the Michigan bill for over a decade, it also has persistent, often intractable opponents. In particular, the forest products industry and some conservation groups opposed Michigan wilderness on the grounds that it locks up public lands that could be put to better use if developed and more intensively used. The congressman whose district would be most affected by wilderness, Robert Davis, also opposed Kildee’s bill.

A fierce opponent of most environmental protection measures, the late state Sen. Joe Mack said in 1987 that wilderness designation would “only add to the misery and suffering of people who live in the Upper Peninsula.” Or, as the Ironwood legislator put it more vividly to Detroit Free Press political columnist Hugh McDiarmid, wilderness was “like a creeping cancer.”  Mack lined up Upper Peninsula opposition to wilderness protection.

The Wilderness Act of 1964 defines wilderness thus: “A wilderness, in contrast to those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and the community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” But Kildee’s proposal affected less than 4% of Michigan’s national forest acreage. And uses permitted in wilderness areas include hunting and fishing – in addition to hiking and camping.

Further complicating matters for Kildee was that fellow Democrat Don Riegle, one of Michigan’s U.S. senators at the time, publicly opposed the wilderness bill. But working with U.S. Sen. Carl Levin, Kildee successfully managed to circumvent this major obstacle. Because of the respect Kildee commanded from colleagues, his cause was also bolstered with bipartisan support from other members of the Michigan delegation in the House, including the late Republican Paul Henry and Democrat David Bonior.  Finally, some leaders in Michigan’s forest products industry pulled back from opposing the bill.

Kildee’s wilderness bill nearly made it through Congress in 1986.  But last-minute opposition by the U.S. Forest Service to the inclusion of the Nordhouse Dunes on Lake Michigan because of potential oil and gas development stopped it dead.  Undeterred, in 1987, Kildee teamed with Levin to work a slightly trimmed down bill (which included Nordhouse Dunes) through Congress.  

President Ronald Reagan signed the Michigan Wilderness Heritage Act into law in December 1987. Kildee hailed it as “the culmination of many years of intense effort to preserve the unique beauty of these 10 areas in Michigan for generations to come.”

Wilderness protection was not the sole measure of Kildee’s environmental commitment.  As a member of the U.S. House Interior Committee, he was also successful in enacting legislation to protect Grand Island off Munising as the first island National Recreation Area, along with another bill protecting 520 miles on 14 Michigan rivers as part of the national Wild and Scenic River System. 

But as an example of his tenacity, ability to work with diverse constituencies and Republican as well as Democratic colleagues, and his skillful outflanking of opponents, the Michigan Wilderness Heritage Act is as good as any.  It is also likely to be one of his most enduring accomplishments. Dale Kildee was an environmental hero.

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Dave Dempsey
Dave Dempsey

Dave Dempsey is currently Senior Policy Advisor at FLOW (For Love of Water), an environmental law and policy center in Traverse City. He has 35 years' experience in environmental policy. He served as environmental advisor to former Michigan Gov. James Blanchard and as policy advisor on the staff of the International Joint Commission. He has also provided policy support to the Michigan Environmental Council and Clean Water Action. He has authored several books on the Great Lakes and water protection.