By Virginia Ransbottom
Saugatuck Township icon Patty Birkholz — a former state senator, representative and lifelong environmental champion — has left us.
Birkholz, 74, died Thursday, May 3, after a sudden and aggressive return of cancer.
“Patty,” said Gov. Rick Snyder in a statement, “was a tireless and highly-regarded advocate for Michigan and our lakes.
“Under her leadership, we saw the formation of the Great Lakes Inter-Basin Compact and passage of significant legislation regarding water withdrawal assessment, the Michigan state parks passport, ballast water standards and renewable energy mandates.
“We all should remember Patty for her dedication to protecting Michigan’s environment and residents, which will benefit Michiganders for generations.”
Birkholz served five terms in the state legislature, including three in the House and two in the Senate.
Starting out as a teacher for Saugatuck-Douglas schools and Ottawa County Head Start, she first stepped into municipal service as a Saugatuck Township Park and Recreation Commission member from 1972 to 1980, her first elected position.
From 1980 to 1982, she served as a township trustee. She was elected and re-elected township treasurer from 1982 to 1992, and also served as an assistant for U.S. Rep. Fred Upton from 1990 to 1992.
In 1992, Birkholz was elected Allegan County Treasurer after being appointed to the position following the death of Fred Edgerton. Winning 73 percent of the vote, she served in that position until 1996.
When elected she was also a member of the Foundation for Michigan State Parks and president of the Allegan Rotary Club.
When the 52-year-old divorced mother of three sons ran for the 88th District state House seat in 1996, she replaced Paul Hillegonds, who endorsed Birkholz after announcing he would not seek reelection. She was voted the first woman state representative from Allegan County, became Assistant Majority Floor Leader from 1997 to 1998 and Speaker Pro Tem from 1999 to 2002.
Elected to the Senate in 2002, she became the first woman in state history elected president pro-tem. She served two terms between 2003 and 2011.
Birkholz distinguished herself by chairing the Senate Natural Resources and Environmental Affairs Committee. She was also the lead author of the Michigan law that regulates ballast water discharges in the Great Lakes to prevent the spread of invasive species.
When shipping companies brought a Constitutional law challenge against the ballast water regulations, Birkholz and other legislative leaders joined the State of Michigan in successfully defending the regulations in federal court.
She also formulated the Recreation Passport program to ensure state parks remain safe and available for future generations to enjoy.
Due to term limits, Birkholz’s stint in the legislature ended, but a month later she was named by new Gov. Snyder as director of the Office of the Great Lakes.
In this role she made the Asian carp threat a focus and worked to restore the health of Michigan’s Areas of Concern and create healthy vibrant coastal communities.
Birkholz served in this role until October 2012. The next month she was appointed to a two-year term with the Great Lakes Protection Fund Board. She was also named director of the Michigan League of Conservation Voters West Michigan office.
President Barack Obama appointed Birkholz to the National Sea Grant Advisory Board, a position she continued to hold until her death.
A 291-acre piece of the 1,000-acre Saugatuck Dunes State Park, which attracts rare birds and endangered species, is now named the Patricia Birkholz Natural Area.
Her push for this state-designated area was one of the first projects of the Natural Areas Conservancy of West Michigan, now the Land Conservancy of West Michigan.
Birkholz was long a supporter of the park. She was president of the Friends of the Saugatuck Dunes State Park, a member of the State Parks Citizens’ Advisory Committee and led beach cleanups along the park’s shore.
She also played a role in the acquisition of the 171-acre Saugatuck Harbor Natural Area north of Oval Beach in Saugatuck and south of the Kalamazoo River.
Birkholz is survived by her sons, Brent (Meridith) Birkholz of Saugatuck, Eric (Dr. Laurie) Birkholz of Saugatuck and Jason Birkholz of Hawaii; granddaughters Hayden and Anna; her sister Joan and husband Frank Lamb of Saugatuck.
The family will hold a private service. An announcement regarding a Celebration of Life service will be made at a future date.
The family asks that contributions in remembrance of Birkholz be made to the Saugatuck Dunes Coastal Alliance, P.O. Box 1013, Saugatuck, MI 49453 or saugatuckdunescoastalalliance.com; Ox-Bow Artists-in-Residence, Saugatuck, at ox-bow/ox-donation; or the Outdoor Discovery Center, 4214 56th Street, Holland, MI 49423 or outdoordiscover.org.
The family has posted a Patty Birkholz Care and Love Facebook page in her honor at facebook.com/Patty-Birkholz-Care-and-Love-1756578291032148/