TRAVERSE CITY — Ken Smith knows there’s no shortage of environmentalists in the Grand Traverse area.
“I like to say there are more tree huggers per square mile in northern Michigan than any place on the planet,” he said.
Smith sees no problem with that. He serves as the executive director of the Northern Michigan Environmental Action Council, which held its 25th annual Environmentalist of the Year Awards Celebration Friday night in the Park Place Hotel.
Sixty-three people were nominated and 19 received awards for their accomplishments furthering environmental awareness or causes.
Smith said more nominees came in this year than ever before.
The evening was dedicated to NMEAC founders Bob Russell and Sally VanVleck. These two icons of the local environmental community were unable to attend — Russell is battling stage four esophageal cancer — but the couple sent a statement thanking the group for the honor and redirecting the focus back toward the recipients.
“It is the collective energy represented in this room, addressing the critical issues for the common good, that brings hope for the future,” it read.
Recipients included local educators, nonprofit and business leaders and journalists, but two elementary school students may have received the most attention.
Jonah Villenueva, 10, and Carter Schmidt, 9, shared the environmentalist of the year award in the student category. Villenueva was recognized for his work fundraising for Wings of Wonder, a nonprofit raptor sanctuary in Empire. Schmidt owns Carter’s Compost, a green business that sells buckets where buyers put their kitchen scraps for composting.
“I want to thank my Traverse City neighbors for putting their scraps into my bucket,” he said to laughter in the audience.
“I think he’s our youngest environmentalist,” said Ann Rogers, acting chair of the NMEAC board.
Schmidt and his family also received the Youth Ambassador Award from the Great Lakes Bioneers of Traverse City, which presented three awards.
Mary Van Valin, a board member of the Michigan Land Use Institute, received an award for volunteer of the year. She listed the names of local environmentalists, ending with Russell and VanVleck, and said the honor was only possible due to their hard work.
“I’m so grateful to stand on those shoulders,” she said.