Joan Wolfe: The Legacy of WMEAC’s Founder

Anyone who has visited the page for WMEAC’s Annual Meeting (and if you haven’t, you should!) has seen a woman in a black-and-white picture as part of the event’s flier. The picture is of Joan Wolfe, who founded WMEAC back in 1968 on the way to becoming one of the most prolific environmental activists in Michigan history.

Joan Wolfe (née Luedders) and her late husband Willard were drawn to Grand Rapids from Detroit in 1960 in no small part due to the (comparative) wild wilderness of West Michigan. Two years later, inspired by Rachel Carson’s revolutionary findings in Silent Spring, Wolfe began her activist career at various independent organizations, including the Audubon Society and Trout Unlimited, but was frustrated by the lack of progress these separate groups were making.

“We both had realized that all of these organizations cared about the environment, but they were all active on different fronts, nothing was getting done,” said Wolfe in a 2008 interview with Rapid Growth Media’s Daniel Schoonmaker, a future WMEAC employee himself. “[S]o it was our idea that there should be an environmental organization that a lot of different organizations could join and there could be cooperative work.”

Wolfe founded West Michigan Environmental Action Council in 1968 as a coalition of not just conservationists but PTA, union, service, minority, student, and church groups. The council’s first big fight started the next year when they sued to prevent the use of infamous pesticide DDT in the Western District of Michigan. The case, the message of which carried public support, was thrown out of court on the grounds that private citizens could not sue on behalf of the environment. Wolfe and company responded by commissioning Dr. Joseph L. Sax, a law professor at the University of Michigan, to write a bill that would eventually become the Michigan Environmental Protection Act, or MEPA. The 1970 law gave Michiganders the standing to do what WMEAC attempted in 1969. In the words of environmental author Dave Dempsey, “Any citizen willing to go to court was deputized as a defender of the environment.”

The citizen action provision of MEPA was first struck down by the Michigan Supreme Court in 2007, then after being briefly reinstated in late 2010 was struck down again in early 2011. The decision was condemned by Wolfe and the organization she founded.

“The legislators got quite scared of environmentalists and citizen action when the Michigan Environmental Protection Act was passed,” said Wolfe. “There wasn’t quite the same need for that type action. Now there is.”

Despite the recent setbacks, WMEAC grew considerably during Wolfe’s five years as executive director. By 1973, membership grew to 700 individuals and 60 Grand Rapids-based organizations and, and WMEAC sported an annual budget of $60,000 (roughly $320,000 in today’s dollars, per the Bureau of Labor Statistics). Through a partnership with the Environmental Defense Fund, Wolfe finally saw DDT banned nationwide in 1972.

Wolfe’s work eventually caught the attention of Governor William Milliken, and in 1973 she was appointed to the Michigan Natural Resources Commission. The first woman ever to serve on the commission, Wolfe eventually became its chairperson. Later on she would sit on the state’s first Natural Resources Trust Fund Board and the Governor’s Advisory Committee on Electric Energy Alternatives.

Wolfe recounted her experiences in her 1991 book Making Things Happen: How to Be an Effective Volunteer, which looked to inspire a new generation of activists. Her distinguished career was recognized with an Honorary Doctorate in Public Service from Western Michigan University, and in 1996 Wolfe was inducted into the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame.

WMEAC would not be the thriving nonprofit it is today without the foundation laid by Joan Wolfe 45 years ago. We invite the public to celebrate her legacy, and those of our other forerunners, at WMEAC’s Annual Meeting on Tuesday, November 12. For details, and to sign up, visit the event page on the WMEAC website.

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