Chevron Conservation Award article in The Graphic by Tom Dammann honoring Dr. John H. Tanton

John Tanton - A man for all seasons

The Graphic, September 4, 1980


On a clear day the sun setting over Little Traverse Bay is an unforgettable sight when viewed from John and Mary Lou Tanton's house on Atkins Road, a few miles out of Petoskey.

But the view Dr. Tanton likes almost as much, is the view of the stars he gets when he lies clown on a mat spread on the floor of a small porch off the dining and living room.

"This is my favorite spot in the house. I sleep here frequently," he told a visitor recently. "I like to look up at the stars. It helps me put things in order.

"These nights I watch the constellation Andromeda which is rising in the northwest between 9 and 10 p.m."

There are other views from the well-ordered reddish brick, stained wood house: the vegetable garden and cold frame, the 70 white beehives neatly lined up down below at the forest end of a grassy valley, the new angular windmill, which will soon be generating electricity for the house.

Each view tells something about the man whom Harbor Springs Mayor Dave Irish says "is the most remarkable person I know who lives up here."

Dr. Tanton led his visitor into the vegetable garden.

"We have two gardens," he said. "One for the regular summer crops the other for the fall and winter. Do you like Swiss chard? It stays all winter.

"I'm having trouble with the egg plant, though. They blossom, but the blossoms fall off without making any fruit. I've got to find out why."

He left the impression the problem would be solved.

Dr. Tanton pointed to the beehives.

"I got interested in raising bees on the family farm in the Thumb area. My father, who is a chemical engineer, escaped from the city to work on the farm my mother's family had.

"I raised bees to make a little extra money," he continued. "I had to stop while I was going to college, medical school and then interning. But when we moved up here in 1964 I started it again.

"I met a commercial bee keeper, Frank Hrushka, in Boyne Falls and he taught me how to raise queens. I try to get a new queen in each hive every year.

"We took 2,034 pounds of honey from those 10 hives last year.

"It's a nice pass time, very cerebral."

The 46-year-old eye surgeon keeps himself in excellent physical form by running and in the winter by cross country skiing.

"I try to run ever day but only average 4 or 5 days a week and run 110 to 115 miles a month," Dr. Tanton said.

For the past several winters, he, his wife Mary Lou and others, including Dave Irish and his sister Ann Wilderom, swing 45-pound packs on their backs and set off on a long cross country trek for making their camps and sleeping in the snow for four or five nights.

Last winter they skied some 60 miles east of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario to rendezvous with Kathy and Jim Bricker, who had taken the year off to fulfill a long time desire to winter in the bush and photograph wildlife. Kathy had been the first executive secretary of the Little Traverse Conservancy, a tax-free land preservation agency which Tanton, Irish and several other conservation mined people had formed. Her husband had been a biologist at the University of Michigan Douglas Lake Biological Station.

Dr. Tanton is a graduate of Michigan State University and the University of Michigan Medical School. But while training for his career in ophthalmology he retained "the request for the natural scene," he attributed to his upbringing on the farm, he joined the Michigan Natural Areas Council and is national counterpart, the Washington D.C. based Natural Conservancy -- a private organization which helps finance the procurement for preservation of forests, wet lands and other relatively pristine areas.

Early on it became clear to him that the problems of conservation and population growth are intertwined.

"Freedom as we know it in this country is tied up with the ratio of population to resources," he said, warning that as resources become less and population expands government will have to step in to arbitrate and allocate the distribution of resources.

The only way to stop inflation is to stop population growth. As more and more people compete for fewer and fewer resources inflation will continue at an increasingly rapid pace.

He explained what he calls "the three R's of conservation," as Reservation, the setting aside of things that haven't been spoiled yet, Restoration, such as the restoration of water quality of Little Traverse Bay by improving sewage disposal methods; and Reform, such as effecting population control."

Each of these must be pursued simultaneously, he added.

When an opening for an ophthalmologist occurred at the Burns Clinic in 1964, Dr. Tanton applied.

"We didn't look anywhere else," he recalled, "because here we saw the opportunity to pursue our interests (Mrs. Tanton who grew up on a Michigan farm shares her husband's interests) while avoiding the worst of the city problems."

It wasn't long before the Tantons, David and Ann Irish and others formed the Northern Michigan Planned Parenthood Chapter of which he became chairman and in which Mary Lou is still very active.

Nor was it long before he became one of the first residents of Michigan to take advantage of the state's trail blazing Environmental Protection Act to institute suits against several area land developers whom he charged would be polluting, even destroying, vital creeks or land if they were allowed to execute their plans unfettered by certain basic controls. One of the land schemes never got beyond the planning stage as a result, while others had to modify their plans to meet environmental needs.

He was a member of the Sierra Club and chairman of the Sierra Club National Population Committee from 1971-75. From 1973 to 1975 he was chairman of the Zero Population Growth Immigration Study and from 1975 to 1977 was national president of ZPG.

More and more he became convinced that the problems of both legal and illegal immigration were

vital to reining in the population explosion in the United States and could best be attacked by a group that had no other interests.

So a year and a half ago he founded Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) whose soul objective is to focus national attention on immigration and persuade Congress to reform present immigration laws. He is FAIR chairman.

He organized boards of advisors and directors presenting both liberal and conservative political thought in the academic, governmental, industrial and professional sectors. He retained Roger Conner, an environmental attorney and executive director of the West Michigan Environmental Action Council from 1973 to 1978, as FAIR's executive director, stationed in a national headquarters in Washington D.C.

Late last year FAIR won national media attention when, with several members-of Congress it sued the Census Bureau to stop it from conducting this year's census because the Bureau counts millions of illegal aliens. When federal district court denied FAIR's request for an injunction, Roger Conner appealed and simultaneously asked the Supreme Court to take immediate jurisdiction. The high court refused and sent the question back to the appeals court.

Tanton says the Cuban refugees have created a "beneficial disaster which has helped get immigration on the national agenda."

"We have a viragos campaign going to support the Senator Dee Huddleston's (D-Ky.) amendment to the Immigration Efficiency Act of 1980 which will make it illegal to hire illegal aliens," he revealed.

"The world refugee problem can't be solved by moving people into the United States," he added, predicting that the problem will worsen as the world's population increases from 4.5 billion people in 1980 to 6 billion in the year 2,000.

"Everything John does he does with a vengeance," says David Irish. "He doesn't do anything casually. When he runs, he runs distances and he wins. He has drive and skills and a long view approach to things. But he doesn't get up tight. He can relax."

Dr. Tanton says he's able to keep up his extra curricular activities by "trying to pass the baton on," and by getting good people to run things for him - like Kathy Bricker and her successor Susanne Dye, at the Little Traverse Conservancy and Roger Conner at FAIR. In fact he has set up Kathy in an office near the Clinic which will coordinate area conservative activities and serve as an information center.

But he admits, he uses up most of his vacation time on these projects not to mention off hours and that he must find time for vacations.

As for a conflict with his heavy medical practice, he finds them compatible.

"I can use my hands in surgery, deal with people on a one-to-one basis, and see the results of my work," he explained. "The outside work is less concrete. It's harder to measure progress.

"The measurable aspects of medicine balance the questions of the larger social problems. "But one of the hazards of getting involved with social concerns is learning to draw the line, otherwise it will eat you up.

"These are two states in life," Dr. Tanton said, his eyes twinkling as if laughing at some secret joke and his face on the verge of smile. "One is having too much to do and the other is not having enough to do. The first state is the best for me."

Copyright 2006-2013 Dr. John H. Tanton