John Dingell Leaves an Incredible Conservation Legacy

In an unparalleled career, the Michigan congressman laid the foundation for modern environmental protection in America.

If you’ve ever been lucky enough to see a Bald Eagle in the wild, you owe a debt of gratitude to John Dingell. Same goes for a Peregrine Falcon, Brown Pelican, Whooping Crane, California Condor, grizzly bear, American alligator, or humpback whale.

We have Dingell to thank for the continued existence of these and many other creatures because the former Michigan congressman, who died Thursday at 92, was a lead author of the Endangered Species Act. The landmark 1973 law protects about 100 bird species and has prevented the extinction of 99 percent of the species it covers.

“Our country was the first to say that only natural extinction is part of natural order; extinction caused by human neglect and interference is not,” Dingell wrote to mark the law’s 40th anniversary.

That law alone would earn him a place in history books and the hearts of conservationists. But Dingell, a Democrat whose 59 years in the House made him the longest-serving member of Congress in history, also helped to hoist just about every other pillar of this country’s conservation and environmental policy. He led the charge in the House to pass the National Environmental Protection Act, sometimes called the Magna Carta of American environmental law, which requires federal agencies to assess how proposed activities will impact the environment. Dingell played a major role in passing the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Wilderness Act, Safe Drinking Water Act, and other significant laws to protect public health and natural areas.

He also strongly supported the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act, and, as NPR pointed out, “introduced a national health care bill every session until the Affordable Care Act came along.”

“John Dingell's legacy lives on in landmark environmental policies that ensured clean air, clean water, and protection for endangered bird species like Kirtland's Warbler and Piping Plover,” said Rebeccah Sanders, vice president of the Great Lakes and Upper Mississippi Flyway for Audubon, in an email. “Conserving nature for wildlife and people was a core value he held very dear and is shared by his wife, Congresswoman Debbie Dingell.”

Dingell was an Army veteran, a former National Park Ranger, an angler and hunter, and among the deftest Twitter users of any generation. (“I signed up to fight Nazis 73 years ago and I'll do it again if I have to,” he tweeted after the 2017 white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. “Hatred, bigotry, & fascism should have no place in this country.”) He retired from Congress in 2015, and his wife, Rep. Debbie Dingell, won his seat.

Dingell’s environmental record wasn’t unblemished. As the representative for a district dependent on the automotive industry, he infuriated some environmentalists by opposing regulations on vehicle emissions, earning him the derisive nickname “Tailpipe Johnny.” His allegiance to the industry was one reason he lost his chairmanship of the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee in 2008 to Rep. Henry Waxman of California, who took a harder line on fighting climate change.

But if Dingell felt obligated to protect carmakers, he seems to have felt just as duty-bound to protect the natural world. It was that commitment to conservation, and not merely his longevity as a legislator, that explains Dingell’s impressive accomplishments in Congress, says Lisa Wozniak, executive director of the Michigan League of Conservation Voters. "He believed in it staunchly, and he had the ability to bring others along with him,” she says. “He was articulate and determined, and had the ability to work to across the aisle. And by no means does that mean he was willing to give up the things he believed in or the things he would fight for.”

One of Dingell’s proudest accomplishments, Wozniak says, was the establishment of the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge, the only international refuge in North America. In 2000, Dingell and others convened a meeting of leaders from both sides of the Detroit River—which forms the boundary between the United States and Canada from Detroit to Lake Erie—to create a vision for the river’s future. The idea of creating an international refuge was Dingell’s, says James Bull, president of Detroit Audubon, who was at that meeting. “We were just blown away,” Bull says. “People were like, that’s a great idea, but how could this ever happen? And how long would it take to make this happen?”

Not long, it turned out. Just nine months after Dingell introduced a bill to establish the refuge, President George W. Bush signed it into law. The refuge visitor’s center now bears Dingell’s name.

Bull says Dingell proposed the refuge because, as a duck hunter—and a member of the Migratory Bird Conservation Commission for nearly half a century—he understood the area’s importance for birds and other wildlife. It’s where he hunted and fished in his youth alongside his father, whose seat in Congress he took over in 1955, when the elder Dingell died.

Sitting at a junction of the Mississippi and Atlantic flyways, the lower Detroit River supports more than 300 bird species. More than 300,000 diving ducks stop there each fall to feast on wild celery. It’s also a major migration corridor for raptors. 

By establishing the refuge, Dingell opened people’s eyes to the Detroit River’s natural beauty and created a fresh vision for a region known primarily for its heavy industry, says Lauri Elbing, a Michigan-based freelance writer who was Dingell’s lead staffer in that effort. “He’s created a place where the next generation of bird lovers and the next generation of anglers will get that spark and become nature lovers,” she says.

“When you look at pictures from the ‘70s, and then you look at it now—I don’t have a way of putting it right now,” she adds, choking up. “It’s such a profound idea. He created a whole new future.”