Keith Schneider

Keith Schneider Shares the Origin Story

July 5, 2020 |

Welcome to the first in a series of interviews we are sharing during our 25th year. Some will look back at early days and the projects that built our legacy and the foundations of the organization. Other pieces will look at projects we are in the midst of today, projects that express the same values, vision and solutions that charted our mission from the earliest days, projects that express an optimistic belief that environment, economy, and community can all rise together.

In this first piece we talk with Keith Schneider, founder of the Michigan Land Use Institute, which, following a name change in 2015, became the Groundwork Center for Resilience Communities.

You founded the Michigan Land Use Institute 25 years ago, and it’s gone on to create quite a list of achievements. Can you share with us the moment that sparked the creation of the organization?
I was a staff reporter for the New York Times, but I was living in northern Michigan, in Manistee County. And I was at home working one winter morning, it was February 1994, and a landman knocked on my door—a man who convinces people to lease their oil and gas rights to a developer. He had the same story you hear of, that he just wanted to make everybody rich, but that wasn’t true.

I studied up on the Antrim gas development area, and learned it ran east through Manistee County and across northern Michigan almost to Lake Huron. At the time it was the most heavily drilled region of the continent. There were more wells being drilled in these counties than anywhere else in the United States or Canada.

Why didn’t you say, “Let’s just stop this.”?
I knew natural gas was better than coal and oil from a pollution standpoint, and I knew natural gas was a fungible resource that could help people hang onto their land and not carve it up for development just to get money. At the time, the Grand Traverse region was the fastest growing region in all the Great Lakes, so there was a lot of development pressure.

That of course has changed, and the local counties have hardly grown in recent years. School enrollments have declined by at least 30 percent since the late ’90s. So if the land man had knocked on my door now, I’d have no impetus to start a smart growth organization!

Gaylord Nelson and Keith Schneider
Above: Gaylord Nelson (left), senator from Wisconsin and founder of Earth Day, speaking with Keith Schneider at an MLUI meeting in the late 1990s.

So you were a journalist who became an activist.
Yes. I was instinctively, naturally inclined to be an activist. But I never knew that. I had the instincts. I took to it like a fish to water. I found the activist work so compelling. In a short time we built one of the most influential environmental organizations in the state. We used the power of journalism to mobilize citizens and gain legitimacy in the public realm. I wrote stories for the general media, but we also printed a small newsletter on Jack Gyr’s copy machine in Benzonia.

I dug up an investigative story about how oil and gas developers quietly reached a sweetheart agreement that cut royalty payments to the state treasury, and drained $8 million a year from a public trust fund that buys land for parks and recreation. It became a big story. So I was writing for the Times, writing our newsletter, and I was a columnist for the Free Press and it just got too big. I had to make a choice.

When did that choice finally happen?
I went out to cover a flood in northern California, and on the way back I remembered something I told myself, that if I ever didn’t want to do an assignment for the New York Times, it was time to go. And I was not feeling it for that story. At that time, there were a lot of older guys just hanging out at the Times, writing once in a while, but mostly just hanging out. I never wanted to be one of those guys. So I thought, there’s probably a way to form a professionally staffed organization that understood policy and land use and economics. I was young, just 37, had no children. I said, Let’s do this!

I wrote a long story about what was happening in Michigan. I was there in Manistee County, and they were about to tear the place up. My principal message was not, “Don’t do it.” I said, “Do it better.” And that eventually became the way that guided the Michigan Land Institute and later Groundwork: Let’s do it better.

Did it seem kind of crazy envisioning all this happening from a base in Benzonia?
Actually, this region is right for a group that joins public policy and nature. This place is beautiful, and it’s this way because we did clean our air and water. We have protected endangered species. We have a natural rivers act. It’s all a purposeful result of public policy and nature’s capacity to heal.

We have achieved something rare here. A strong economy based on natural resources that we use as recreation. Farming. rivers, beaches. We have a rare and unique place on earth. The institute was designed to ensure that would continue. And we didn’t have to make the case to do that, people understood it.

All of that formed the Michigan Land Use Institute and those principles are still with the organization. Get the facts right. Provide expert knowledge. Be in the game for the long term.

What was a big, early victory that came from the work in natural gas?
One of the biggest was chasing the natural gas industry out of the Jordan River Valley. The DNR decided they’d offer oil and gas leases in the Jordan River Valley, which was antithetical to the founding of the area. And it was completely illegal in a preserve that was legally protected forever. So we wrote an op-ed in the Free Press, and we turned it into a real stink. Hans Voss did the organizing of the protests and opposition. He led the campaign. Then in 1998, Governor Engler, in the state of the state address, announced that the DNR would not be leasing oil and gas rights in the Jordan River Valley. We were all together watching the address and were like … Did you hear what he just said?!!!

Then a little bit later, in the spring, Hans and I were up in the valley, and we found the 40 acres that the DNR had attempted to lease, and we found the stake that marked where the well would have been drilled. Hans pulled it out and waved it over his head. I took a picture of him, but I don’t know where that picture is today!

We were back there again in the fall that year, Arlin Wasserman (a Groundwork employee at the time) and Hans and I, and we drove by the Jordan River Valley and went up to that big overlook, Deadman’s Hill. It was during the full blast of fall color across thousands of acres of forest. I said, “You see this? We have made this possible, forever. This is a damn achievement. This scene will not change as long as there is a Michigan and a United States of America.