Remembering WMEAC Founding Member Willard Wolfe

WMEAC founding member Willard Wolfe passed away last week at 85 following a long battle with cancer.  Will and WMEAC founder Joan Wolfe, his wife of 57 years, moved to Grand Rapids from the Detroit area in 1960 to open his dental practice.  Over the next decade the couple became increasingly interested in the environmental movement, eventually launching the council in 1968.

Will’s passion for fly fishing defined some of WMEAC’s early work.  He led the statewide committee that wrote what became the Inland Lakes and Streams Act and was also a founding member of the Schrems West Michigan Chapter of Trout Unlimited.  In later years, he co-founded the Pere Marquette Watershed Council, initiated a statewide network of volunteer watershed councils, led the effort to restore the Watershaw Wetlands and served on the boards of the Land Conservancy of West Michigan and Grand Rapids Audubon Society.

The Wolfes moved to Frankfort in 1997.

The visitation is this Saturday, February 26 at 4 p.m. at the Jowett Funeral Home in Benzonia.  A larger memorial celebration will be held on Sunday, June 12 at the Watervale Inn in Frankfort.  Memorials are suggested that reflect his many concerns for serving those less fortunate, promoting literacy or conserving Michigan’s lakes and streams.  An online guestbook is also available on the memorials page of the Traverse City Record Eagle.

Two years ago, I had the opportunity to interview Will and other founding members as part of WMEAC’s 40th Anniversary Celebration.  He shared his thoughts on the importance of the outdoors to West Michigan and our region’s unique commitment to the environment, the role of sportsmen in conservation and the beginnings of the environmental “movement.” Thanks to intern Tami Stevens for transcribing the tape.

What initially attracted you to the environmental movement?

First of all, I had the privilege of growing up on Gross Ile.  It’s an island in the middle of the Detroit River near the mouth of Lake Erie.  The privilege part of it was the natural environment and the out of doors became my key interest in life. I was very involved with scouting and it influenced me in terms of where I went to college:  I went to Dartmouth because of its long and famed legacy and tradition of involving the out of doors.

I grew up knowing birds and became a birder. I grew up fishing and I later refined that to fly fishing for trout when I got to West Michigan.  That was certainly one of the great privileges of being in Western Michigan. I was close to trout water.  The Detroit River was not too kind to trout.

So my interest was a natural consequence of my value system. Quite honestly, I didn’t see myself as being involved in an environmental movement at all. It was involvement because of concern.

We lived in the Rockford area on the Rogue River.  I would see the river one day be red and another day green and another day blue.  It was really offensive and got me interested in why in the world we would pollute such a beautiful river that was such a treasure north of a metropolitan area like Grand Rapids.  The paper mill was doing that.  It began to sensitize me to what was happening to resources, in particular water resources.

The Inland Lakes and Streams Act was quite an accomplishment for environmentalists and sportsmen alike.  How did that come about?

We had a cabin on the Pere Marquette River System.  We became very alarmed by a development that would create an artificial lake by damming off a beautiful lovely little stream that fed into the little south branch of the river.  It really galvanized the people, the fishermen and landowners in the watershed system that things were happening over which no one seemed to have any control. We set up the Pere Marquette Watershed Council and began working on behalf of the small streams that are the life blood of the main river.  That led me to talk to with the head of law enforcement of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, a nice man named George Dahl.  I confronted him and said “Why aren’t you people doing something about this?  Our streams are being assaulted and we want something done!”

George said very nicely, “Well, that’s fine, but we don’t have any law or any mandate to do anything about it and what little we have has no teeth in it.  So that’s where we are.  Why don’t you get a group together and write a law for us.”

The process of putting that together as a legislative package took about a year.  Anyone interested in water and the health of our rivers and streams and lakes was involved.  It took a year out of my life and then I turned it over to WMEAC.  I had a dental practice I had to tend to.

I look at the process of what went into both the Michigan Environmental Protection Act and the Inland Lake and Stream Act:  The Inland Lake and Stream Act was somewhat narrower in its accomplishment but its protection was critically important to the health of our inland waters in the state.  It was accomplished because of citizen concern and citizens being willing to come together, study hard, work hard and put together a positive agenda to address a specific concern.

I think that’s a great example of the democratic process at its best.  I think the process by which we got there was almost as significant as the protection itself.  That doesn’t happen with most of the issues we are faced with, but in that particular case it worked almost as a perfect example of what could be done.  You don’t want to underestimate the power of passionate people when they put their minds to something … like a bunch of fisherman, trout fisherman in particular.

Did you have much active involvement after that time?

My wife, Joan, was involved 100 percent.  I would put my oar in when it was appropriate and helpful.  Looking back, I think I was probably a lot more involved than I realized. We lived a wonderful 40 years in Grand Rapids and it was great to find other folks who had such a strong interest in the environment.  As a community Grand Rapids was willing to expand their concerns in a much broader way.  It became a very strong force for the environment in the state of Michigan, no question about it.  The good, strong citizens in Grand Rapids made a lot of things possible.  That they were able to garner the interest of all the people who had these concerns and give them purpose and direction was to the credit of the city.  Up here (in the Traverse City area) there are now equal concerns and the citizens have responded.  It took an initial spark and that spark I feel was very much started in Grand Rapids.

How do you think West Michigan stands in context of the larger state, particularly Detroit, which has a fairly negative reputation for environmental issues?

I think you have to put that in full context.  We can’t forget that the arsenal for democracy was southeast Michigan.  That manufacturing base and its part in the industrial revolution was the underlying agenda there.  West Michigan industry didn’t have that level of powerful intensity.  And it was a much less polluting industry.  Even the large part of the economy that was involved in the auto industry wasn’t comparable to what you would see in Detroit.

That being said, my own interest got peaked because of the Rockford paper mill flushing the dyes down the river, the beautiful Rogue River day in and day out. So West Michigan was not without environmental problems, but it’s not a fair comparison.

Many of us (that were involved in the early West Michigan environmental movement) came from southeast Michigan. Joan and I just talked to a good friend the other day who also grew up in Detroit.  We were talking about what’s happening there and he made the point that the viewpoints of Detroit and Grand Rapids are so different that they almost can’t see each other in any realistic light.  There’s a lot of truth to that.  There is such a different perspective.

But to your question, I was amazed how the East Michigan Environmental Action Council became a functioning concern after WMEAC.  All the various factors that came to play throughout that time were more acute in West Michigan.  I like to believe that we had some pretty strong outdoor kind of values that played right into the environmental concerns.  That became, as you said, a movement.

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