MOVERS AND SHAKERS: A conversation with JIM OLSON, one of the area’s most influential environmental attorneys

Traverse City attorney Jim Olson has been at the center of some of Michigan’s most important environmental cases and causes for over 27 years. As the senior principal lawyer with Olson, Noonan & Bzdok, which specializes in Natural Resources and Environmental Law and related issues, he has lectured at numerous professional associations, universities, and organizations in the United States, Canada, and Brazil.

He was named Lawyer of the Year in 1998, along with another Traverse City lawyer, Philip Rosi, by Michigan Lawyers Weekly. He has also published several books, one on Michigan Environmental Law, and numerous articles on environmental and land use subjects.

I sat down with Jim in September to get his take on the state of our area’s environment.

MD: Environmental stewardship is a hot topic. In the 1990 Michigan Relative Risk Analysis Project, Grand Traverse Co. scored in the “high-high ranking” for its absence of land use planning and degradation of urban environments. Are we worse off a decade after this report was published?

JO: I’d say we’re worse off in some ways. Traverse City is a fragmented mess. We have some architects, builders, and real estate developers acting irresponsibly, who haven’t given thought to a master plan or the impact of their creations. And there are people diligently working to make voluntary personal changes, to use what already exists in better ways rather than create new things. People involved with the preservation, restoration and rehabilitation projects in our area are great examples–people like Ken Richmond and the group involved in Building 50 (on former state hospital grounds).

The people involved in the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore are another good example. There are private citizens and NGOs (non-government organizations) working hard to bring about change, but they’re fighting against a tide of greed and short-sightedness. It’s not just our area, it’s a national epidemic. It’s the Pac-Man mentality of gobbling up everything in sight and filling in whatever’s in their view.

MD: In the same report, Grand Traverse Co. ranked high in alterations of surface water and ground water hydrology. Some scientists see the current low water levels as cyclical while others see it as a warning sign. How do you view it?

JO: The availability of water is becoming a critical issue much sooner than expected. Health and population issues, agriculture and all business developments will turn on the issue of water. China has over 50 percent of the world’s population, but only 17 percent of its water. Will world politics change so that countries in need of water will come looking for obvious sources like the Great Lakes? Is water more than just a commodity? Yes, because our stewardship of it makes it more than just a thing to be sold. There’s public trust involved. Look at our reaction to the recent low water levels; it doesn’t take much for us to feel the biological, economic, and recreational impact of change.

MD: How close are we to witnessing bulk shipments of Great Lakes water?

JO: So far, there’s only been diversion of water sources, and only on a small scale, and no bulk shipments of water to foreign countries. Water could become the next privatized service. Our water would be at the mercy of the private sector if that happens. If it is privatized, we would lose the public will, the public good, and the public trust associated with state and federally-controlled water rights.

Who wants to say where your next drink of water is going to come from? The individual Great Lakes states have authority over the water in the Lakes, but some global treaties could trump the state’s rights over that water. Because of global politics and economics, the Feds could come into our state and send our water elsewhere, whether or not we agree with it or like it. Bart Stupak is one of the congressmen actively seeking a federal and state ban on bulk shipments of water.

MD: Do you see more or less activism now than 27 years ago when you started practicing?

JO: The early years were exciting and many state and federal laws were written, but I actually see more activism taking place now. And it’s happening in small, grassroots groups–not the big groups like Greenpeace, the Sierra Club or others.

There are always bad examples in every group, but for the most part the big groups have an important role as watchdogs for federal agencies. The cutting edge of environmental protection has moved away from those national groups to the local level.

MD: It seems as if most of the important environmental protection laws were written in the late 1960s through the ’80s, such as the National Environmental Policy Act (1969), the Clean Air Act (1972), and the Endangered Species Act (1973). What significant amendments have been made to these laws since they were written?

JO: The 1960s and ’70s were a renaissance in terms of establishing environmental law framework. In the ’80s, the laws stayed in place but we saw no significant progress in dealing with the issues, other than the Superfund (Program), which also has its drawbacks.

By and large, we’re dealing with a legal vacuum for two reasons: In Michigan, the Engler Administration wants to curtail and reduce environmental laws. Nationally, we’ve been in a holding pattern throughout much of the ’90s. We’re still searching for answers in the face of reduced budgets and reduced enforcement of environmental laws.

MD: In 1980, Congress established the Superfund Program to locate, investigate, and clean up chemical waste spill sites, or brownfields. How would you rate the success of this program?

JO: In some ways, Superfund is one of the more successful programs, although it’s more of an investment package than a legal one. It did its job by successfully drawing attention to problems like nuclear waste dumping at Love Canal and the PBB crisis, and focused money to these sites throughout the United States.

MD: Superfund legislation creates corporate liability wherever toxic spills are found, regardless who caused the problem. Investors aren’t buying or building on land where there’s the remotest possibility of chemical handling. Instead, they’re developing rural sites to be safe from liability. Isn’t this counterproductive to the whole Superfund idea?

JO: Yes, but it’s not as simple as “brownfields” vs. “greenfields.” We need to create healthier cities, and that means more brownfield development. Those development dollars can’t all come from taxpayers; private sector developers and businesses need to invest in this urban renewal to keep our cities and our society from collapsing.

MD: Urban renewal is a worthy goal, but how do you convince people to stay in the very environment they’re trying to flee?

JO: The most important environment in this nation in the next century won’t be forests or wetlands, it will be our cities. We cannot continue to eat up farmland. If cities are recreated as communities, people will want to live there. Urban flight duplicates the very thing people are trying to get away from. Key issues are creating and maintaining good, decent-paying jobs and creating a sense of belonging to hold people in that community.

We don’t work where we live, and the automobile further separates us from our communities by keeping us isolated.

MD: Statistics show that the majority of new home construction in northern Michigan is people moving here from urban areas, and that new construction is on a much larger scale than previous developments.

JO: Urban flight has caused drastic changes in northern Michigan and the nation. We have extremely high accelerating land prices and construction costs being driven by people with more money wanting more. This is pushing out the middle class because now they have the choice to sell their land and move out, and that usually means more rural development.

Traverse City and northern Michigan need to decide what its scale is. Is it really necessary to build 8,000 square foot homes? Do we really need another 300-unit mall when a 50-unit complex will do? Do we really want these big buildings crowding the bays, lakes, and rivers?

Many people in Traverse City and other communities feel an underlying disintegration in the quality of life because of these big developments.

MD: How has the shift from a national economy to a global economy affected communities, particularly farming communities?

JO: The shift to a global economy means that farmers and manufacturers must be at the mercy of what the global market will pay, not what their goods and services cost to produce. Unemployment in the U.S. is at a very low level but wages have not increased significantly because of the flood of the global markets. The global economy has dislocated regional markets.

A good example of this dislocation is the case involving a large hog farm in central Michigan. In order to compete globally, this farm had to use production methods that ultimately harmed the community around it. It negatively impacted the community, yet it didn’t violate any zoning laws. The laws were written before globalization was an issue. So, we had the needs of the farm to be able to compete globally pitted against the needs of the community to maintain their quality of life.

These cases will become more frequent as more farmland is invaded by developers. We don’t have good systems in place to protect the public interest while at the same time thoughtfully developing what’s already here.

MD: What are the legal limits communities can put on growth? With schools in financial trouble, how can townships turn down the tax revenue from new businesses and developments?

JO: I will be the first to say that from a legal standpoint, if you get enough wealth, you can build whatever and wherever you want to.

But, there may come a time when a community can decide the law. There must be a sense of stewardship, and there’s public trust involved in making decisions for our own towns. For the most part, people want to live in viable, vibrant communities, not gated kingdoms.

There are alternatives, and there are answers, but it will take looking at these issues in the long-term and in the best interest of the community, not the best interest of a few individuals.

We need to look at what the real cost is to a community. Do ask, and Do Tell, and Do Decide what you’re going to do with the information you have. We all need to slow down and pay attention to what remains, and treasure what’s around us. BN

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