Former state Sen, environmental advocate Patty Birkholz dies

Virginia Ransbottom

Former state Senator Patty Birkholz, 74, of Saugatuck passed away Thursday, May 3, after a sudden and aggressive return of cancer.

Gov. Rick Snyder said in a statement, “Patty 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 the 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 Michigan 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 member of the Saugatuck Township Park and Recreation Commission from 1972 to 1980, her first elected position.

From 1980 to 1982, she served as a Saugatuck Township Trustee. From there, she was elected Saugatuck Township Treasurer from 1982 to 1992, and also served as an assistant for U.S. Rep. Fred Upton from 1990-1992.

In 1992, she 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 State House of Representatives 88th District in 1996, she took the seat of Paul Hillegonds who endorsed Birkholz after announcing he would not seek reelection. She was voted the first woman state representative from Allegan County and became the Assistant Majority Floor Leader from 1997 to 1998 and Speaker Pro Tempore from 1999 to 2002.

Elected to the Senate in 2002, she was the first woman in state history elected president pro-tempore. She served two terms between 2003 and 2011.

Birkholz distinguished herself by chairing the Senate Natural Resources and Environmental Affairs Committee.

Birkholz 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, Sen. 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 legislator ended, but just a month later, she was named by new Governor Rick Snyder as director of the Office of the Great Lakes.

It was in this role she made the Asian carp threat a key focus and worked diligently on restoring the health of Michigan’s Areas of Concern and creating 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 of Directors. She was also named director of the Michigan League of Conservation Voters West Michigan office.

President Barack Obama appointed Senator Birkholz to the National Sea Grant Advisory Board, a position she continued to hold until her death.

A piece of the 1,000-acre Saugatuck Dunes State Park now honors Birkholz.

The 291-acre natural area inside the park that attracts rare birds and endangered species is 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 had been 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 three sons, Brent (Meridith) Birkholz of Saugatuck, Eric (Dr. Laurie) Birkholz of Saugatuck, Jason Birkholz of Hawaii, her precious granddaughters Hayden and Anna, her sister Joan and husband Frank Lamb of Saugatuck.

The family will hold a private family service. An announcement regarding a Celebration of Life service will be made at a future date.

The family asks that contributions in remembrance of Sen. Birkholz be made to the Saugatuck Dunes Coastal Alliance, P.O. Box 1013, Saugatuck, MI 49453 or; Ox-Bow Artists-in-Residence, Saugatuck at www.ox-bow/ox-donation, or the Outdoor Discovery Center, 4214 56th Street, Holland, MI 49423 or

The family has posted a Patty Birkholz Care and Love  Facebook page in her honor.



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