How Keith Schneider ’78 and the Michigan Land Use Institute are
“Having spent so much time working in rural areas and state capitals
it was clear to me by 1993 that a major critique of government’s
role as a manager of natural resources was brewing outside of Washington,”
he says. “Some of it was driven by real problems with the law, particularly
the cost and complexity of cleaning up toxic materials.
“But other facets of the attack on government environmental programs represented a real threat to the community’s ability to protect itself. As a journalist for the Times I saw that the influence of the property rights movement, not only in environmental policy, but also in state elections was a crucial story that would eventually affect national elections. So I covered it persistently. As a conservationist in my private life I worried that property rights were becoming an organizing principle for dismantling environmental protections.”
In the period beginning with Ronald Reagan’s presidency through George Bush’s administration, Schneider says that he witnessed a major shift in the country’s overall view of its responsibility as a steward. “Our national heritage – the love of the land and the desire to safeguard its natural heritage – had been the basis of our conservation and environmental policy,” says Schneider. “America was the first country in the world to have national parks.”
But, as Schneider observes, “The political conservatism of the 1980s and 1990s changed all that. The movement to reduce taxes and regulation and public oversight was embraced by landowners and developers who seized on the view that government had no authority to interfere in decisions about private property. My reporting from around the country indicated that property rights was an organizing principle for business, development, farm, rural, and suburban interests who viewed government as an unwelcome influence in their lives.” says Schneider. “It was a view that was coming to dominate state elections.” To be closer to the story, Schneider left Washington and moved to a small house on 90 acres in Manistee County, Michigan, a place near the northern coast of Lake Michigan that he had visited a few years earlier and fallen in love with. He continued to report as a national correspondent for the Times even as his life took a completely new turn in 1994 when a “landman” showed up at his door.
“Landmen,” explains Schneider, “are advance men for the oil industry. They are sent out by energy companies to convince land owners to sign leases that give companies the right to drill on their property.” Keith knew immediately what that visit meant for his land and the community. He had witnessed and written about the aftermath of industrial development in other parts of the country and in northern Michigan. The marshaling of technology and capital in the late 20th century was capable of transforming rural landscapes in a matter of weeks. Schneider recalls watching and photographing rural Benzie County’s first McDonald’s being built in Benzonia, 10 miles from his house. “I took a picture every day – from the first tree they cut to the day they served their first hamburger. It was completed in just 42 days,” he recalls. “I watched a 200-acre shopping center in Traverse City, 30 miles north of my house, built in 90 days.” For the next several months, Keith and his neighbors held public meetings and organized a campaign to convince the state government and the energy industry to conduct the drilling in a way that was sensitive to land owners, small towns, and the natural resources of the region. The campaign, organized around a kitchen table in Springdale Township, grew into the most active and influential grass roots environmental movement in Michigan in the 1990s and resulted in five new state laws to strengthen public oversight of Michigan’s $1.5 billion oil and gas industry. Schneider says the experience was a turning point for him. “All that I had been writing for the Times was basically about how the land was being used, what choices communities make and what choices industries and public policy people were making. These were issues that I found myself now confronting on a personal level as well.
“I loved working at the Times, but knew I had done basically everything there I had wanted to do. This was a new challenge.” In 1995, a year into the oil and gas campaign, Keith and a number of like-minded friends and neighbors formed the Michigan Land Use Institute – a statewide action-oriented think tank which “marries the tools of journalism, reasoned, non-hyperbolic messages, and classic coalition building.”
At the heart of the organization is the largest land use and environmental reporting and editing news desk in the country. Half of the Institute’s 15 staff members are journalists. The rest are technical research staff with governmental and finance expertise. With offices in Beulah, Traverse City, Grand Rapids, and Lansing, and a budget of $1.5 million, the Institute is one of the 10 largest state-based environmental advocacy organizations in the country. Among its primary tools is the Great Lakes Bulletin News Service, which serves every major news outlet in the state; a quarterly magazine, regular reports, and a comprehensive web site viewed by more than 50,000 visitors each month. More recently, the Institute is seeking funds to take advantage of broadband and become a full multimedia operation. Two of its staffers have radio and television news experience.
The Institute’s primary audiences are Michigan’s local and state policy makers, the media, and business leaders. But its influence, particularly in coalition building, also extended to the state’s gubernatorial election last year.
“Since 1995 we spent much of our time reporting on runaway development and environmental problems in Michigan that our conservative governor, John Engler, chose to ignore or evade. In effect, the governor’s approach suppressed debate in our state capital and cause public pressure for change to really build here,” said Schneider. “In the 2002 election, due in part to the Institute’s work, a consensus emerged among all the candidates that sprawl was a problem that merited state action, and that environmental protection was a core value of Michigan’s citizens.” Michigan elected Democrat Jennifer Granholm as its first woman governor and its first “smart growth” governor, an outcome that Schneider and his staff regard as the Institute’s most important achievement.
Haverford has played a role in influencing the Institute’s vision and its work. Ted Curran ’53, was the Institute’s second board president. Schneider’s brothers, Reed ’74, and Grant ’80, support the organization with timely gifts. And Schneider’s classmates are regular donors. More recently, Schneider turned to the College as a source of new writing and editing talent. This summer, through the auspices of Haverford’s Center for Peace and Global Citizenship internship program, two Haverford students will spend 10 weeks at the Institute’s Beulah office learning first-hand how citizens working with an expert public-interest organization shape environmental and land-use policy. Kyle Smiddie ’04 and Sarah Morris ’05, who competed with other Haverford students for the paid internships, will serve as writers and editors on the Institute’s news desk. They will work alongside the Institute’s journalists and editors, as well as accompanying Institute staff to legislative hearings and coalition meetings. “Progressive movements need bright young people to take up the cause,” says Schneider. “What better place to recruit those kinds of people and introduce them to the give and take of public-policy work than Haverford. All of the applicants for this internship were terrific, but Sarah and Kyle stood out because of the quality of their writing, and how they presented themselves and their work.
"They will be right in the middle of everything we're doing," Schneider says. "They'll edit some of the best writers and assist some of the best organizers in the business. We take our mission seriously and we've had a lot of success. I'm sure Sarah and Kyle will come away from this experience with a much better sense that our government still serves its purpose and good things happen when smart and committed people work together in the public interest."
Pam Sheridan is Director of Public Information at Haverford. You can
learn more about the Michigan Land Use Institute at http://www.mlui.org