Chevron Conservation Award letter from Governor Richard Lamm honoring Dr. John H. Tanton
University of Denver
Center for Public Policy and Contemporary Issues
November 29, 1989
Chevron Conservation Committee c/o Bill Roper
Chevron Public Affairs
575 Market Street, Room 872
San Francisco, California 94105
The purpose of this letter is to nominate Dr. John Tanton, M.D. for the Chevron conservation award, in recognition of his lifetime of work for conservation of natural areas and natural resources in his home state of Michigan.
You might ask why a former Governor of Colorado should be nominating a Michigan eye surgeon for a national conservation award. It has been my good fortune to know John Tanton for over twenty years, and when I read that your goal is "more volunteers for environmental conservation," I thought of him immediately. John is one of American conservation's true unsung heroes.
Let me summarize the reasons why he should receive the award in two paragraphs: His work has led directly to the preservation of thousands of acres of the most sensitive and valuable natural areas in Michigan, he has inspired and led hundreds of people to become volunteers to the cause of conservation, he has been a mentor to a generation of Michigan conservation professionals, and he is personally responsible for organizing a broad array of local groups which have made Petoskey, Michigan, a place where the entire community is mobilized for conservation.
He has done all of this while maintaining an active surgical practice at the nationally recognized Burns Clinic, being a husband and father of two, bringing in a ton of honey a year from his own beehives, participating on the boards of national organizations ranging from population to the problems of the visually handicapped, and maintaining a garden large enough to keep half the county in tomatoes and Swiss chard.
To start with, John grew up in the "thumb" area of northern Michigan. Perhaps it was through watching a small, interdependent community of farmers, or maybe the religious teachings of the church which he attended as a youth, or the enduring commitments he saw within his own family, but John decided early on that he had an obligation to contribute to his community and his country. Fortunately for all of us, he picked environmental conservation as the focus for his public interest endeavors.
As soon as he arrived in Petoskey, a small community which rests in one of the upper Midwest's finest natural areas, he started recruiting volunteers to the cause of conservation. He devoted nights, weekends, vacation time and many nights each week to organizing conservation groups. In addition, he chose to take one day each week from his surgical practice and devote this day to the same causes.
John invested a part of this freed time at the nearby Biological Station of the University of Michigan, where he studied botany, zoology, ornithology, aquatic ecology and geology along side graduate students. He then used this knowledge to nurture an interest in nature among others by organizing hiking trips, cross country ski outings, birdwatching walks, and hunting expeditions. Around every campfire was a discussion of conservation, judiciously mixed with humorous stories and John's hilarious recitations from Robert Service ("The Cremation of Sam McGee").
Most volunteers are not self-starters. They need organizations, and John had the will and the skill to start them. He helped organize the Bear River Development Commission shortly after his arrival in 1964, for example. This group encouraged local governments and landowners to see the Bear River (which flows through Petoskey) as a resource which should be developed with a comprehensive plan. Thanks to their initial proposals, a public-private partnership has evolved over the past 25 years leading to new public parks, improvements of river frontage owned by the local college, community clean-up days, land exchanges to consolidate public ownership and easements over private land for nature trails along the banks.
The Petoskey Regional Chapter of the Audubon Society and the local chapter of the Sierra Club also got their start in his living room. A local film series, periodic nature hikes, and monthly conservation programs are all the result of groups he somehow found the time to initiate. He was invited by the Governor to serve on the Wilderness and Natural Areas Advisory Board, and helped organize citizen support to make the Sleeping Bear Dunes and the Pictured Rocks area parts of the National Park System (both successful). Michigan's environmental laws have often been a model for other states, and many bear the print of his suggestions and benefited from his organizational efforts.
The early 1970's marked an important turning point in John's conservation work. Development pressures exploded in Northern Michigan, and subdivisions of second homes threatened to totally destroy wetlands and other vital natural areas. John spearheaded three lawsuits -- the first ever filed under Michigan's precedent-setting Environmental Protection Act -- which cost over $150,000 (most of which he raised).
The suits made John a household word in Northern Michigan, but on reflection he realized that litigation had serious limitations. The suits were expensive and divided the community, and frequently ended up with a result that should be obtainable through negotiation, especially since proper conservation and land use planning makes good economic sense.
So he formed two groups. One, the Little Traverse Group, was an informal collection of volunteers and community leaders who would work with developers to reach agreement on problem areas without litigation. Two, he formed the Little Traverse Conservancy as a means to raise money and purchase key parcels of land which needed outright preservation.
The Conservancy is a remarkable success story. It has raised money to purchase vital acreage, created environmental education programs for students and adults, and received national recognition as a model for local land trusts around the country. Thousands of volunteers have been mobilized to contribute, raise funds, manage properties, engage in environmental education activities, all because John had the idea and acted on it. What is more remarkable, he was able to make the transition from entrepreneur to leader to mentor, passing to others the responsibility of leadership in recent years.
There is not sufficient space in this letter to list all of the groups he organized in Petoskey, most of which are thriving to this day. What is astounding is that he had time left over to organize several national organizations in the fields of population, immigration, and language. Most recently, he has pioneered a new medical practice on behalf of people with visual impairments which cannot be improved with surgery. As you might expect, he has been selected by the American Academy of Ophthalmology to head its Committee on Low Vision.
Environmental conservation is more than a cause with John. It is also a personal issue. From the windmill on the hill by his house (a failed experiment, alas), to his beehives, to the Canadian canoe trip he organized for friends this past summer, John believes that an ethical life includes conservation at its core. It is always easier to fight for your principles than to live up to them, but John Tanton certainly tries to keep his life consistent with his professed values . . . though always with a sense of humor. He can laugh when his friends remind him of the letters he used to send in re-used envelopes, stamped with the admonition, "help save paper, use both sides" (thankfully the Post Office outlawed the practice!).
I salute Chevron for continuing the tradition of the Conservation Awards. Given the purpose of the awards, it would be doubly appropriate that you should recognize John, who has invested over a quarter century to the goal of "more volunteers for environmental conservation."
Very Truly Yours,