My Environmental Record

The Sierra Club endorses Vivienne Armentrout in the race for 5th Ward Council

Yes, I’m proud of that endorsement.  It is the result of a long deliberative process.  I was required to fill out a rather fearsome questionnaire.  This then went to a local committee, and as I understand it, a series of committees all the way up to the state level.  I did experience some anxiety about the result.

According to one interim message I got (sent to all candidates), the committees reviewed not only the candidates’ responses, but their records.  This got me thinking about my record as an environmentalist.

I have been an environmentalist for so long that it is part of my core identity.  I’ve always loved the natural world (don’t forget that I am a biologist).  My husband Charlie and I have always tried to live with a small footprint, with reusable goods, high-mileage cars and a low consumption habit as much as possible.  We used unleaded gas before it was required, went to a lot of trouble to recycle before it was convenient, and went to hearings on the original Clean Air Act.  My Sierra Club membership card notes “member since 1973”.

But really, aren’t we all environmentalists these days?  Everyone tries to be “green”.  Still, this has limitations. Thomas Princen made some pithy points about this in his book, “Treading Softly”.  “An economical economy, therefore, does not arise when its consumption patterns simply become greener and more environmentally friendly.”  There is much, much more, but his point is that we can’t be truly concerned about the environment and the future of the planet merely by buying “green” products. I might add, merely by espousing “green” viewpoints. So what have I done other than have friendly feelings toward the environment?

As a plant pathology professional, I ventured into controversy even as a graduate student by opposing the excessive use of pesticides.  Pesticide use is the easy way to control pest problems, but these are often very toxic chemicals.  As a professor, I taught the use of cultural and biological approaches rather than pesticide use against plant disease.  When I arrived in Ann Arbor, I volunteered with the Ecology Center (this was at a time when they actually worked closely with community volunteers in Ann Arbor rather than statewide issues with paid staff).  I was the chair of the Pesticide Task Force and gave lectures on lawn care and integrated, low-toxic pest management of pest problems.  We got the city to adopt some policies that reduced pesticide spraying and incorporated notification to individuals of pesticide treatments.

Then I was appointed to the Solid Waste Commission and quickly became its chair.  During the time I was on the SWC, we supported Recycle Ann Arbor as the city recycling provider and saw the initiation of the compost program.  We started initial exploration of commercial waste recycling.  After I was elected to the Board of Commissioners, I continued this interest and helped to keep the county’s funding for the Drop-off Center.

I discovered two new environmental passions early in my career on the Board of Commissioners.  The concept of  “sustainability” had just gained some currency and I put considerable personal effort into making this one of the BOC priorities.  I was also appointed to the Agricultural Lands and Open Space Task Force, where, after spending an intensive year studying land use patterns in Washtenaw County, we placed an item on the ballot (1998)  to support Purchase of Development Rights and other land use-related issues.  This failed after determined opposition from the development community.  But it was the precursor to the later county millage to protect natural areas (now expanded to some protection of farmland) and then the city Greenbelt program.

Meanwhile, I determined that we needed a better planning matrix to support good land use practices.  The last year I was on the BOC, I was the chair of the Planning Advisory Board as we put together the Washtenaw County Comprehensive Plan.  (You will find my name on it as the editor.)

An environmental problem that was considerably less satisfying than talking about land use came up early in my tenure as a commissioner.   It was the 1,4-dioxane contamination from the former Gelman plant in Scio Township.  I was heavily involved in this, causing a staff member to be hired who brought professional expertise to bear, resurrecting an intergovernmental partnership to address it, and obtaining funds a number of times through BOC resolution to make appeals at the state level for regulatory assistance.  (This was during the Engler administration, which was not environmentally friendly.)  Despite all our best efforts, the situation has deteriorated.  The current county website has updates.

Lately, I have been involved in efforts to protect Ann Arbor parkland from the threat of being disbursed into other uses.  (Specifically, I have opposed the use of Fuller Park for a new train station.)  Our parkland is a valuable environmental resource.  Aside from its active recreational component, it is an important source of passive recreation (simple enjoyment of natural areas).  It serves as permeable surface, air and water quality improvement, and maintenance of many plant and animal communities.  The viewscapes it provides are an important asset to the perceived quality of life in Ann Arbor.  Ann Arbor residents have frequently expressed their support of the park system by voting taxes on themselves and also raising and donating money to support individual parks.  Yet, in spite of all this, some in our government have noted the untapped wealth in our park system and sought to exploit it.  As this excellent summary by the Ann Arbor Chronicle notes, there is currently an effort to amend the Charter to prohibit leasing of parkland, a neglected area of protection.  I support this effort.

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