Cause and effect: Conservation expert teaches environmental law at U-M

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By Sheila Pursglove
Legal News

Mark Van Putten’s environmental interests were sparked by Alosa pseudoharengus — the alewife fish. Van Putten recalls boyhood summers on the shores of Lake Michigan, during the era of the alewife die-offs.

“I remember the beaches and lake surface being covered as far as the eye could see with dead alewives and wondering how a lake so big could become so degraded,” he says.

His concern for the environment led to a career spanning three decades in environmental policymaking and nonprofit organizational leadership at the international, national, regional, and local levels.

A Public Interest/Public Service Faculty Fellow at the University of Michigan Law School — where he earned his J.D. magna cum laude in 1982 — Van Putten mentors students interested in public service and public interest law careers and teaches courses and seminars on environmental law and policy, including the history of Environmental Law & Policy, Natural Resources Law and the Law of Climate Change Adaptation & Sustainable Development.    

“There’s much to be said for the opportunity to engage with the best and the brightest among young legal minds — the students help keep my thinking sharp,” he says. “I’m also impressed with their sophisticated approach to environmental and sustainability issues. We’ve progressed so far beyond a simplistic attitude that protecting the environment is inconsistent with economic wellbeing.”   

According to Van Putten, the two most important and compelling topics in this field are climate change and biodiversity loss.

“In both instances, the challenge is to translate global concerns into meaningful policies and practices in specific places,” he says. “Our technologically advanced, largely urban society fosters the illusion that our wellbeing — in fact, our very survival — no longer directly depend on healthy and functioning natural ecosystems.”   

He also is a member of the Visiting Committee at the School of Natural Resources and Environment, where he presented the keynote address at the celebration of the school’s centennial anniversary and served as Commencement Speaker in 2013.   

Van Putten is founder and president of the D.C.-based ConservationStrategy LLC, an environmental strategy and organizational development consulting firm that advises institutional and individual donors on effective environmental grant-making.

“This sector, as measured by foundation members in the Environmental Grantmakers Association – of which I’m a board member – contributes $1 billion a year to environmental causes and not always effectively,” he explains. “With more than 20 years’ experience with grantees, I try to bring a strategic and pragmatic perspective to funders.”   

Van Putten also served as an environmental adviser to the Obama-Biden campaigns in 2008 and 2012.

“It was especially rewarding in the early stages of the 2008 campaign during the primary season, working with the thinly-staffed ‘underdog’ Obama campaign – and very different from working on the reelection of an incumbent president,” he says. “Serving as a member of the Department of Interior transition team in 2008 provided insights not only into pressing policy issues, but the dynamic involved with the transfer of power from one political party to another.”   

A graduate of Calvin College in his hometown of Grand Rapids, Van Putten was active since high school in local electoral politics.

“I became interested in the law as my concern for protecting the environment matured and I came to understand its usefulness in this regard,” he says.    

His mentor, environmental expert Joseph Sax – then the Philip A. Hart Distinguished University Professor at U-M – had much to do with this understanding.

And thanks to Sax, Van Putten was hired right out of law school to start the regional Great Lakes office of the National Wildlife Federation (NWF), America’s largest membership-based environmental group.

From humble beginnings in a converted bedroom in the Guild House across Monroe Street from the U-M Law School, with Van Putten as the sole member of staff, the office grew into NWF’s largest regional office with 20-plus staff and a multi-million-dollar budget.   

In conjunction with launching the NWF Great Lakes office, he started the Law School’s Environmental Law Clinic and became an adjunct member of the U-M Law faculty.

The clinic grew to four full time litigators (including Van Putten), each of whom supervised four to six law students working on interdisciplinary teams with graduate students from other parts of the University on pending lawsuits and administrative matters.   

In 1996, Van Putten was recruited by the NWF board to move to the D.C. area and spent 8 years as President and CEO. Responsible for programs offered to more than 4 million NWF members and supporters, he oversaw a nationwide network of state affiliates, an annual budget exceeding $100 million, a 28-member board of directors, and nearly 600 full time employees in 11 locations.   

On the 30th anniversary of the Clean Water Act in 2002, he was named one of 30 American “Clean Water Heroes” by the Clean Water Network, a coalition of more than 1,000 organizations around the country; and in 2011 he was honored with the Great Laker Citizen Award from Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition.

For the past two years, he has been a part-time visiting scholar with the Energy and Climate Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, D.C.    

Van Putten makes his home in Grand Haven, overlooking Lake Michigan — and where he enjoys kayaking, canoeing, paddle boarding, hiking, biking and fishing. He and his wife Colleen — who has held a variety of practicing and leadership positions with hospices in the D.C. area and now in west Michigan — recently celebrated their 39th anniversary.

“Colleen and I are very happy to be back home on the shores of the Great Lakes from which I’ve drawn my inspiration and which I hope I’ve helped leave a little healthier for the future,” Van Putten said.

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