Water versus stone

By Lawrence Cosentino

Persistent passion earns Dave Dempsey top award for Great Lakes advocacy

Quietly, slowly, water erodes the strongest rock. Dave Dempsey’s lifelong push against the despoilers, exploiters and developers that pressure the Great Lakes operates on that scale.

Today, soft-spoken Dempsey, 56, a longtime Michigan environmentalist and former City Pulse columnist who now lives in Minnesota, will get the Michigan Environmental Council’s highest award, the Helen and William Milliken Distinguished Service Award.

Dempsey is getting the award for a long and varied 25-year career, as policy adviser to Gov. James Blanchard in the 1980s and environmental advocate for several non-profit agencies, including the MEC.

Along the way, he wrote half a dozen books that laid down an authoritative record of environmental battles over the Great Lakes, from the dry-shaving of the state’s old-growth forests in the late 19th century to the land use battles of the present day.

“What’s that saying? ‘Still waters run deep,’” mused Lana Pollack, former president of the Michigan Environmental Council and Dempsey’s friend for 30 years. “That would be Dave. I’ve never seen him raise his voice, but it’s not for lack of passion.”

Pollack got the grants that helped Dempsey finish two of his most cherished projects, a definitive history of conservation in Michigan (“Ruin and Recovery”) and a biography of environmentally progressive Republican Gov. William Milliken (“Michigan’s Passionate Moderate.”)

Far from scholarly dust collectors, both books offer lovingly detailed proof that Michigan — and a Republican governor — once led the way in environmental stewardship. The not-so-hidden message is that they can do so again.

These days, Dempsey and Pollack are again working together, only on the national stage. In 2010, President Barack Obama appointed Pollack chairwoman of the U.S. Section of the International Joint Commission, the cross-border agency that monitors the Great Lakes. Dempsey advises the commission on “virtually every issue we deal with,” Pollack said. “We’ve come to call him ‘the wizard,’ because he knows all the answers.”

Dempsey grew up in Detroit area and, later, in Lansing. At 24, on a backpacking trip to the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore on Lake Superior, he was he bitten by one of the U.P.s rare and infectious insects: the advocacy bug.

He thought it would be a short-term gig — he was planning to become a literature professor — but he quickly jumped from volunteer work at the Sierra Club in 1981 to president of the Michigan Environmental Council in 1982. The next year, Blanchard appointed Dempsey as his environmental policy adviser.

One of the first calls he got was from a U.P. man who wanted Blanchard to “do something about the black flies.” The polite answer was “no,” but other problems proved more tractable. The high water mark of 1960s and 1970s environmentalism was ebbing, but under Blanchard, cleanup began on tens of thousands of toxic waste sites around the state and laws were passed to conserve wetlands and sand dunes. Dempsey was also pleased to see Blanchard sign the Great Lakes Charter in 1985 and start a regional Great Lakes Protection Fund in 1988.

In his sweetest public policy moment, Dempsey persuaded Blanchard to reverse his opposition to federal legislation that turned 90,000 acres of national forest in Michigan into protected wilderness.

When Blanchard lost to John Engler in 1990, Dempsey returned to the nonprofit sector, writing about the environment for City Pulse on the side. He moved to Minnesota in 2004, “mainly because I fell in love with a Minnesota woman,” he explained without elaboration. Before joining the International Joint Commission in 2010, he finished three more books, including a novel about a romance between a conservationist and a developer.

“He has the opposite of writer’s block,” Pollack said. “The words really flow.”

Despite a proud history of conservation, Michigan’s environmental future, Dempsey said, looks “cloudy” with a few bright spots. He praised the work of private citizens like Bob Andrus, who is also getting an MEC award today for his work on restoring the Au Sable River. He’s also pleased that land conservancies have bought and protected over 100,000 acres of irreplaceable habitat in Michigan.

“Positive action is happening outside of Lansing, but inside Lansing, the best term I can think of is incremental retreat,” he said. Among other setbacks, sand dune protections Dempsey helped pass in the 1980s have been trimmed by legislative amendment in recent years.

“Victories you win in your career are often not permanent,” he said. But Dempsey’s juices keep flowing, as long as he stays near the water. “A lake is the earth’s eye,” goes one of Dempsey’s favorite quotes from Henry David Thoreau, “looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature.”

Last week, Dempsey visited family at Duck Lake in Muskegon County, a “little lake” just a Petoskey stone’s throw from the “big lake.”

“It made me realize how much I miss Lake Michigan,” he said.