A Tribute to U.S. Congressman John Dingell – A Conservation Hero

John Hartig, Detroit. 
2 May 2019

Many voices. Greener cities. Better cities.
John Dingell was frequently called the “Lion of the U.S. Congress” because his passion for conservation of natural resources and outdoor recreation coupled with keen legislative skills, and unwavering support for public service led him to great success as the architect behind most environmental legislation in the U.S.
U.S. Congressman John D. Dingell, Jr. passed away on February 7th at the age of 92. He may be best known as the longest-serving member of the U.S. House of Representatives in history—serving 59 years and being reelected 29 times, an unparalleled leader of health care—presiding over the passage of Medicare, introducing a national health care bill at the start of every Congress since 1957, and being a force behind the Affordable Care Act (which was key legislation of President Obama), an early supporter of the civil rights movement, and a feared master of congressional oversight—rooting out waste, fraud, and abuse.

But he was most endeared as a conservation hero.

John Dingell, Jr. learned to be an outdoorsman and public servant from his father—Congressman John D. Dingell, Sr. Upon the death of John Dingell, Sr. on September 19, 1955, John Dingell, Jr. was elected by special election to fill his father’s seat on December 13, 1955 at the age of 29.

Throughout his life Dingell was a congressional page, a park ranger, a Second Lieutenant in the U.S. Army during World War II, an assistant county prosecutor, and always a lover of the great outdoors. He grew up fishing and hunting in and along the Detroit River and western Lake Erie and saw first-hand what we, as society, were doing to pollute our rivers and lakes. Dingell’s love of the outdoors and his passion for public service led him to champion clean water and conservation in Washington, D.C.

Dingell at Humbug Marsh, Michigan’s only Ramsar Wetland of International Importance. Photo: Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge

Dingell was a master of legislative deal-making. For 14 years he served as chairman of the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee, which oversees industries from banking and energy to health care and the environment. He frequently was called the “Lion of the U.S. Congress” because of both his influence and effectiveness.

His environmental and conservation accomplishments as a legislator include the Ocean Dumping Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, and more. He served on the Merchant Marine Fisheries Committee that gave him freedom to work on big issues that he really cared about. He also served from 1969-2014 on the Migratory Bird Conservation Committee where he worked in a bipartisan fashion to purchase lands for the National Wildlife Refuge System—a 150 million-acre array representing the world’s largest network of lands and waters set aside for wildlife conservation and to increase funding for Land and Water Conservation Fund and the North American Wetlands Conservation Act.

Dingell at Point Mouillee Waterfowl Festival. Photo: Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge
Dingell with Greening of Detroit work crew at Refuge Gateway in Trenton. Photo: Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge
Dingell with children at Humbug Marsh. Photo: Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge

Dingell’s passion for conservation of natural resources and outdoor recreation, keen legislative skills, and unwavering support for public service were key factors that made him so successful. The significance of some of his major legislative accomplishments is worth highlighting.

Dingell wrote the 1970 National Environmental Policy Act, known as NEPA, which requires federal agencies to consider the environmental consequences of developmental projects before they are constructed. This act is sometimes referred to as the “Magna Carta” of environmental law, and more than 100 nations around the world have enacted national environmental policies modeled after it.

He played a vital role in passing the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act that provides an integrated approach to protection of marine mammals and was significant because it was the first legislation to adopt an ecosystem approach to natural resource management and conservation. Today, the ecosystem approach is widely accepted throughout the world.

Dingell was the architect of the 1972 Clean Water Act which has helped cleanup and protect waterways from pollution. Today, the Clean Water Act is credited with significantly reducing pollutant inputs that has led to ecological revival of many waterways, although more efforts are needed. This act has also served as model legislation for numerous countries to regulate the discharge of pollutants to surface waters to restore and maintain their chemical, physical, and biological integrity.

Dingell at Humbug Marsh. Photo: Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge
Dingell with Canadian partners celebrating expansion of the refuge in Canada. Photo: Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge

He authored the 1973 Endangered Species Act which made the U.S. the first country in the world to make human-caused extinction of other species illegal and today is credited with saving hundreds of plants and animals from extinction, including the Bald Eagle, Peregrine Falcon, Green Sea Turtle, Humpback Whale, Southern Sea Otter, El Segundo Blue Butterfly, Robbins’ Cinquefoil, American Alligator, Brown Pelican, and more.

Dingell authored the 2001 Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge Establishment Act to not only protect over 100 species of fish and over 350 species of birds in the heart of the North American Great Lakes, but to demonstrate how to use public-private partnerships to build an urban refuge that prioritizes bringing conservation to cities and makes nature part of everyday urban life. He wanted to protect his favorite fishing and hunting grounds from his youth and do it in a fashion that inspires the next generation of conservationists in urban areas because that is where 80% of all U.S. and Canadian citizens live. Clearly, this concept of an urban refuge that inspires the next generation of conservationists is consistent with the goals and transformative ideas of The Nature of Cities.

Today, the waters of the United States are cleaner, the birds, fish, and other species are safer, and all of us have national wildlife refuges and national parks where we can recreate, reflect, spark a sense of wonder, learn about sustainability, and pass on a conservation ethic to the next generation—largely because of John Dingell.

John Hartig

On The Nature of Cities

John Hartig

About the Writer:
John Hartig

Dr. John Hartig has been appointed a Fulbright Scholar to undertake multi-disciplinary research on the cleanup, restoration, and revitalization of Great Lakes Areas of Concern. He currently is the Fulbright Canada Research Chair in Governance at the Balsillie School of International Affairs in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada.

John Hartig

John Hartig

Dr. John Hartig is currently a Fulbright Scholar serving as the Fulbright Canada Research Chair in Global Governance at Balsillie School of International Affairs in Waterloo, Ontario. The focus of his Fulbright is multi-disciplinary research on cleanup of the Great Lakes. For the past 14 years he served as Refuge Manager for the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge. John has received a number of awards for his work, including the 2017 Community Peacemaker Award from Wayne State University’s Center for Peace and Conflict Studies, the 2016 Edward G. Voss Conservation Science Award from Michigan Nature Association, the 2015 Conservationist of the Year Award from the John Muir Association, and the 2013 Conservation Advocate of the Year Award from the Michigan League of Conservation Voters. He has authored or co-authored over 100 publications on the environment, including four books: Bringing Conservation to Cities; Burning Rivers; Honoring Our Detroit River, Caring for Our Home; and Under RAPs: Toward Grassroots Ecological Democracy in the Great Lakes Basin. John’s most recent book titled Bringing Conservation to Cities won a Gold Medal from the Nonfiction Authors Association in the "Sustainable Living" category and a bronze medal from the Living Now Book Awards in the "Green Living" category.

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