Lee Botts, Champion of the Great Lakes, Is Dead at 91


Lee Botts was 8 years old, a child of northwest Oklahoma and already a keen observer of the region’s violent dust storms when, in the depths of the Depression, she had her first lesson in taking sensible measures to fix environmental damage.

One morning her grandfather lifted her onto his saddle and rode out with her to a pasture to inspect a row of drought-resistant trees he had planted to halt erosion. They found that the trees, together forming what was called a shelterbelt, were, supported by a federal New Deal soil conservation program, growing just fine.

The lesson stayed with her, she later said, arousing in her a passion to help protect the earth and kindling a seven-decade career in environmentalism — in her case far removed from that parched Oklahoma soil.

She became a writer, a grass-roots organizer, an educator, and a municipal and federal government official whose work would touch practically every drop of water and every mile of shoreline in the Great Lakes basin and educate tens of thousands of people in its ecology.

Mrs. Botts died on Oct. 5 in Oak Park, Ill., at 91. Her son Paul said the cause was complications of dementia.

“Lee Botts was an environmentalist before the environmental movement had a name,” said Elizabeth D. Botts, her daughter and a former reporter for The Chicago Tribune.

Mrs. Botts started out in the field as a volunteer for several local and regional associations in Chicago, where she and her husband, Lambert S. Botts, had moved and married in 1949. She earned a reputation for clear thinking, setting big goals and achieving them. In the 1950s and early ’60s, she worked with Senator Paul H. Douglas, Democrat of Illinois, to build public support for a proposed 15,000-acre Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. It was established in 1966 and became a national park this year.

By 1968 she was one of Chicago’s first professional environmental activists. That role led to a post as an official in the Environmental Protection Agency’s regional office in Chicago, a presidential appointment to the Great Lakes Basin Commission in Ann Arbor, Mich., and a position in Chicago as a deputy commissioner charged with starting the city’s environment department.

She made each position count. She helped eliminate the discharge of phosphates and other pollutants into Lake Michigan. She started Chicago’s nationally lauded program of waste reduction and environmental sustainability. She founded two influential nonprofit Great Lakes environmental organizations — the Lake Michigan Federation, a multistate alliance of environmental groups, and the Indiana Dunes Environmental Learning Center, a program based at the national park.

“Lee made clear that we can almost never be effective enough or strong enough when it comes to protecting the Great Lakes,” said Howard Learner, director of the Environmental Law and Policy Center in Chicago and one of many environmental leaders in the area influenced by her career. “Lee set the bar high, which is where it should be.”

Lee Botts was born Leila Carman on Feb. 25, 1928, in Mooreland, Okla., the only daughter and elder of two children of Bernard and Bertha Bell (Rutledge) Carman. Her father was a contractor, her mother a homemaker.

She attended Oklahoma A&M University, where she edited the school newspaper and met her future husband. After moving to Chicago, Mr. Botts attended graduate school at the University of Chicago; she completed her studies by mail and earned a B.A. in English.

While living in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago in the 1950s, Mrs. Botts wrote for The Hyde Park Herald, a weekly newspaper. In the early 1960s, she was among a group of activists who saved the lakefront Jackson Park, just south of Hyde Park, from a proposed superhighway that would have cut right through it.

In 1968, her writing and her visibility as an organizer drew the attention of the Openlands Project, Chicago’s first professionally staffed environmental organization. Hired by the group to promote environmental education in Chicago schools, she quickly distinguished herself as a tireless activist.

In 1970, Mrs. Botts organized a conference of local groups from the four states sharing Lake Michigan’s shoreline to advocate for a basin-wide citizens’ organization to campaign against spreading pollution in the lake. It led to the formation of the Lake Michigan Federation. She became its director in 1971 and held the job for four years.

The federation’s achievements included persuading Mayor Richard J. Daley to make Chicago the first Great Lakes city to ban phosphates in detergent. It also lobbied successfully for congressional passage of the 1972 Clean Water Act and pressured states to enforce its provisions to stem sewage and industrial discharges into Lake Michigan.

In 1975, Mrs. Botts joined the staff of the E.P.A.’s Region 5 office in Chicago. A magazine published by the office described her in a headline as “Lady of the Lake.”

She spent much of her time in the Chicago office trying to convince E.P.A. officials in Washington that Great Lakes residents and wildlife were at risk from polychlorinated biphenyls, a class of toxic industrial chemicals used as lubricants and insulators. PCBs, as they were known, were present in industrial effluent and rain and were accumulating in the tissues of fish. The agency banned PCB discharges into rivers and lakes in 1977 and halted the use and production of the chemicals in 1979.

By then, President Jimmy Carter, having become aware of her work, appointed Mrs. Botts to direct the federal government’s newly established Great Lakes Basin Commission. After the Reagan administration eliminated the commission in 1981, she joined the faculty of Northwestern University as a researcher at its Center for Urban Affairs and Policy Research.

In 1985, Mayor Harold Washington of Chicago named her a senior adviser in the city’s creation of a Department of the Environment.

“I worked from inside government and outside government,” Mrs. Botts said of her career, adding, “I learned there are a lot of different ways to make things happen.”

Mrs. Botts announced her retirement in 1988, but she never stopped working. In the 1990s she was invited to give keynote addresses at international conferences in Russia and Estonia and to consult on measures to establish trans-boundary pacts, similar to those in the Great Lakes, to protect rivers and lakes in the former Soviet Union.

In addition to her son Paul and her daughter, Elizabeth, Mrs. Botts is survived by two other sons, Karl and Alan, and two grandchildren.

In 1987 Mrs. Botts was awarded a citation from the United Nations Environment Program “for making a difference in the global environment.” She also received honorary doctorates from Indiana University and Calumet College of St. Joseph. She was inducted into the Indiana Conservation Hall of Fame in 2009.

In 2008, during a celebration of her 80th birthday, Mrs. Botts alerted friends and family that she was not done. She recalled that memorable horseback ride with her grandfather and told the attendees that at 80, he, too, was guest of honor at a big party.

“We all thought, gee, you know, 80, almost over,” she said, then added: “He died 17 years later. So you’ve been fair warned.”

Mrs. Botts’s last project was writing and producing a documentary history of natural resources in northern Indiana, “Shifting Sands: On the Path to Sustainability.” It was released in 2016 and won a regional Emmy Award.

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