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NMEAC: The Next Generation

Traverse Magazine, April, 1996

April 1, 1996 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

In the war strategy of the environmental movement in the 1980s, uncompromising rhetoric became a standard weapon.. No group in the Grand Traverse region deployed the verbal arsenal to build a more distinguished record on the conservation front lines than the Northern Michigan Environmental Action Council.

The 1990s, though, have turned out to be a decade of turmoil for NMEAC, which is now in its 16th year. Having been the first to break the region’s fertile organizing ground, an exceptionally diverse community of new environmental organizations sprung up in NMEAC’s furrows. At the same time, words like consensus and compromise creeped into environmentalism’s vocabulary. The upstart groups, among them the Grand Traverse Bay Watershed Initiative and the local land conservancies, began to preach the gospel of cooperation.

The new language and ideological landscape was unfamiliar to NMEAC’s 1960’s-style leaders. NMEAC wasn’t alone. During the 1990s, hundreds of other groups in and out of Michigan have encountered similar problems in building a message and program that resonates with a public in love with the environment but skeptical about environmentalists. Financially busted, sore of spirit, and just plain worn out, NMEAC came close to disbanding in 1994.

"There was a lack of inspiration," said Bob Jones, a square-jawed landscape contractor who for years served as NMEAC’s chairman. "We evaluated our usefulness and how we functioned and whether we had run our course. A lot of other organizations in the area were doing the same things we were doing. We just kind of got shoved aside."

In 1996, the 26th anniversary of Earth Day, young leaders have taken over NMEAC, an all-volunteer organization. Kima Kraimer, a writer and editor, and Timothy Young, a painting contractor, have trimmed away old issues in favor of a limited set of new priorities, including understanding the environmental and social costs of all the proposed highways around Traverse City. NMEAC also will continue holding its annual All Species Parade on Front Street, a family celebration of Earth Day scheduled this year for April 21.

"There is an image that we’re still tree huggers and that we can be extremists," said Kraimer. "That needs to be remedied. Some of us see the benefits of working with government officials, business groups, and different organizations that we opposed in the past."

What a difference a decade makes. Claiming the end of forest serenity, NMEAC chased oil drillers out of the Sand Lakes Quiet Area in the early 1980s. When resort builders proposed to tear up magnificent North Fox Island, NMEAC leaders swooped in to rail against the project as an ugly scar on the earth. NMEAC helped defeat a plan to build the ghastly Bayview Mall, which would have put huge parking lots and big square boxes right next to Traverse City’s pedestrian-friendly waterfront. And exquisite wetlands along the Crystal River remain unfilled because of NMEAC’s persistent opposition to a proposed golf course.

The 1980’s were a golden period for no-holds barred activism. At the national level it attracted new members and treasure chests brimming with donations. But the money that poured in to national groups in the 1980s to support work on a flood of new environmental problems causing competition for media attention, and an unexpected erosion in standards, discipline, priorities, and public support.

An active counter movement, raising the twin flags of regulatory expense and private property rights, didn’t help by accusing environmentalists of being sanctimonious hype artists who were indifferent to working people. Membership in the Wilderness Society, for instance, plummeted to 275,000 in 1994, 125,000 less than in 1990.

In Northwest Michigan, NMEAC was undergoing its own meltdown. Having determined that construction would ruin an important tributary of the Boardman River, NMEAC opposed the Grand Traverse Mall, the region’s first mega-shopping center. NMEAC, by then, had a long tradition of beating up on big business. But during a heated emergency meeting one evening, NMEAC’s board splintered over an improbable decision. It voted to join with the owners of the smaller and older Cherryland Mall in a lawsuit designed to keep its big new rival from ever opening. When the agreement was made public, NMEAC was accused of hypocritical gamesmanship that soiled its purist image.

Jones and other NMEAC leaders are correct in arguing that the lawsuit led to new safeguards for controlling erosion and stormwater runoff that are now the standard at other construction sites in the region. Others in the group say, though, that the cost in public credibility, the currency of grass roots organizing, was very high.

"It caused a deep soul searching about what was best for NMEAC and the environment," said Sally Van Vleck, co-director of the Neahtawanta Center on Old Mission Peninsula, and NMEAC’s co-founder. "I opposed it. We could have done more public education, more dialogue. Going that route, and ending the way it did, the whole negative vibe wasn’t good."

As they settle into a new era that promises a stronger, more focused program, Kraimer and Young have not lost sight of NMEAC’s traditional mission. While mainstream America touts moderation, and preaches conservation, it nevertheless is still practicing profligacy. NMEAC’s goal is no less crucial than it’s ever been: restraining those zealously pursuing wealth by exploiting natural resources.

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