He helmed Michigan Out-of-Doors and is a member of the Michigan Conservation Hall of Fame and Michigan Journalism Hall of Fame, making him one of our most remarkable Legends of Conservation
By Alan Campbell
This article originally appeared in the summer 2023 edition of Michigan Out-of-Doors.
People and things live, and they die. It’s sad to think about the loss of mission today within the politics that drive public policy, and it’s difficult to ignore the work of Ken Lowe in carrying a torch of civility during his lifetime of achievement.
Lowe, editor of Michigan Out-of-Doors magazine at a time when the state was recognized as the national leader in natural resource protection, forged a legacy beyond the finished sausage of government rules and laws.
He stood for a conservation ethic that allowed shooting does in the Upper Peninsula as wildlife biologists who had studied the subject recommended. The stand, which seems little more than common sense today, resulted in his image being burned in a public display of protest.
And he stood for passing a cup of scotch — his preference over bourbon — in a tin cup at the end of a grouse hunt with sportsmen who shared his love of the outdoors if not his political leanings.
“When Ken died, I remember writing a memorial in my column,” recalled Bob Gwizdz, a veteran outdoor writer whose stories have run in scores of newspapers and national magazines. “The two things I said about Ken were that he was a professional and a gentleman.”
The body of work attached to Ken Lowe’s byline and the way he conducted his life led to Lowe’s induction into the Michigan Journalism Hall of Fame (2002) and the Michigan Conservation Hall of Fame (1997).
Lowe believed in conservation ideals and knew how to expand their impact through vibrant storytelling.
A Yooper, but refrain from using the term
Ken Lowe grew up in Fargo, North Dakota, and felt no longing to return. “He hated it because every summer it was hot, and during winter there weren’t many places that were colder,” recalled Bob Garner, who, as a legislative aid in Lansing, worked closely with Lowe to put in place conservation milestones such as the Bottle Bill and the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund.
Like other conservation leaders of his time — Gov. Bill Milliken and DNR director Howard Tanner come to mind — Lowe got a worldly view of life during World War II. He served in Ireland as a radio communications specialist for the Navy.
Lowe, an adventurer who quoted Shakespeare, was home on the British Isles. Garner said that he stole away to Wimbledon to see and feel its clay courts.
The GI Bill provided the means for him to earn a degree in psychology at the University of Michigan and rub elbows in intellectual circles. But his heart yearned for woods over blacktop, pulling him to take an entry journalism position with the Marquette Mining Journal in 1948.
Lowe soon brought his penchant for the outdoors into his career and the homes of Yoopers. He started a well-received weekly outdoor page at the Journal in 1951, the same year he began editing the Northern Michigan Sportsman publication. His work received the general excellence in newspaper award from the Michigan Outdoor Writers Association (MOWA).
He met the love of his life at the Mining Journal. Ken and Marie, a secretary at the newspaper at the time, were soon married. While Ken, who was no socialite, could be found off somewhere deep in an intellectual conversation, the affable Marie was the life of the party, their son Scott Lowe remembered. They were a good fit.
By 1955 he was editor of the largest newspaper in the Upper Peninsula. His articles appeared in leading national outdoor publications such as Field & Stream, and his fellow journalists elected him president of MOWA.
If life was good for Ken and Marie, it was even better for their children. Scott, who resides in Traverse City, was the middle of three brothers who grew up in the sporting life.
“I think of my childhood as idyllic,” Lowe said. “He encouraged a sense of wonder in his kids. I remember when I was about 10 years old, and my dad planned a trip but didn’t tell me what we would do. On that Friday afternoon, we walked the fields at our camp. We stopped and he showed me all the droppings, and said it was a sharptail dancing ground.”
Ken Lowe, a study in contrasts, enjoyed nothing more than killing a grouse over a solid point. But he was also an avid birder who identified species by their songs and silhouettes. Lowe combined his favored pursuits that next morning at the lek, the term for a sharptail mating area, after having erected a galvanized pipe-and-canvas blind for he and his son.
“As the sun came up, sharptails from all directions set their wings and cruised to the lek. Then the males started with their mating dance. The grouse coupled up and flew off until they were all gone. It was magical, and I’ll never forget it,” Scott said, that magic still in his voice.
Garner, who met Ken in the 1970s, said Lowe’s love of birds never waned and included a trip to Costa Rica to follow their migration. “He knew every bird and every song. You couldn’t hardly drive with him because he’d see a red-tail hawk and jam on the brakes, endangering everyone to look at that bird,” he said.
Lowe was a sportsman and a naturalist, which at times left his views in disfavor with readers who preferred that popular opinion of the day govern game management. He lost subscribers when supporting antlerless hunting in parts of the Upper Peninsula. His stand against the coyote bounty system didn’t win any favors at local pubs, either.
“Biologists didn’t think that a sound practice, and he believed in using science to establish game laws,” Scott said. “He would take stances that he believed in, but the general population in the U.P. didn’t always follow him.”
Lowe was one of those rare individuals who moved freely between bow tie and flannel shirt crowds. A hunter and trout fisherman — but no purist fly fisher by any means — he led a worldly life with a wilderness backdrop. He snowshoed, ice fished and mushroom hunted with a local probate judge.
He played chess but not poker and rooted for the Lions in Packer country. He followed the career of Sandy Koufax, who refused to pitch on the Sabbath, because Lowe liked baseball and believed in principle over short-term gain.
Each fall, he stored his guns after taking aim at his last grouse, choosing to write about rather than participate in deer season.
Newspapers may tout their independence from political persuasion. Still, history says otherwise. After a change in ownership in 1972 at the Mining Journal, a new publisher demanded that the newspaper take an editorial stand supporting apartheid in South Africa.
“His refusal to run the article cost him his job, but Lowe felt he was simply doing his duty as both a journalist and a citizen,” a plaque states in the Michigan Journalism Hall of Fame housed on the campus of Michigan State University.
The Lowes had no alternate life plan — no golden parachute. Ken worked in public relations for three years and was appointed to a non-paying seat on the Michigan Conservation Commission, the predecessor to the Natural Resources Commission, before landing a second once-in-a-lifetime job downstate.
While closer to the decision-makers of Michigan outdoor policy, Lowe’s soul never left the Upper Peninsula, Scott said.
“I don’t think my parents ever wanted to move from the UP. He loved the people from the UP. He didn’t like the word Yooper because he thought it was negative. Whenever he got a chance, he would go up there. He loved the whole state, really,” Scott said.
Landing on his feet in Lansing, mingling with legends of conservation
No offense, but young people who believe they live in the age of environmental activism might want to research Michigan in the 1970s. The state, led by a somewhat rebellious Michigan United Conservation Clubs, was recognized as a leader in national clean water and air movements. The U.S. Environmental Protection Act was signed into law on Jan. 1, 1970; the Michigan Environmental Safety Act passed just a few months later.
While more environmental protection laws would follow, none would be as controversial as what is still referred to as the “bottle bill” approved by voters in 1976.
One year earlier, Lowe had been hired as editor of Michigan Out-of-Doors magazine by MUCC executive director Tom Washington. Lowe and Washington did not see eye-to-eye on politics but looked beyond their differences for the betterment of Michigan conservation.
Both set their sights on drumming up support for a public vote on a returnable bottle law rejected by the Michigan Legislature.
“(Lowe) was a dedicated Democrat,” said Garner, former host of the Michigan Out-of-Doors television show and also a member of the Michigan Conservation Hall of Fame. “Tom Washington, who hired him, was a conservative Republican; they got along just fine because they knew each was talented. They had a consistent theme: conservation and the environment were not opposing issues. What knock-down, drag-out arguments they had, which they would because of their personalities, took second to conservation and the environment. They were very close friends.”
Want further proof that solid public policy can bridge opposing politics? Lowe loved each of his four English setters; Washington was a German shorthair aficionado.
Both fought desperately for the Bottle Bill, which was approved by 64% of Michigan voters.
“I remember circulating petitions, trying to get it on the ballot. It was a struggle. There was a lot of (financial) opposition to it,” Scott Lowe recalled. Indeed, MUCC and other environmental organizations were outspent 10-to-1 by business lobbies.
Ken Lowe carried on the good fight for all 21 of his years at the helm of Michigan Out-of-Doors magazine, dying in 1996 before seriously considering retiring. It was a job he loved and never wanted to relinquish, even at 75.
Wrote Kevin Frailey, then-director of information and education for MUCC, at the time of Lowe’s passing,
“He never backed away from issues no matter how controversial and felt that objectivity was crucial.”
Gwizdz recalled those heady times of conservation activism led by MUCC, which still carries the loudest voice in representing hunters and fishers in the halls of the state Capital.
“(MUCC) was above and beyond all the national wildlife affiliations in the country. It was bold, it was aggressive, and it helped accomplish things in this state that other states still haven’t accomplished,” he said.
In front of that charge was Lowe.
“Few journalists go to the Natural Resources Commission meetings. He was there, he was watching. He was paying attention. Ken probably had a little more environmental ethic than most hook-and-bullet guys. Ken thought it was all part and parcel as the whole package,” Gwizdz said.