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Leila (Lee) Botts (1928 – October 5, 2019) was an American environmentalist known primarily for her work related to conservation and restoration of the Great Lakes. She founded two non-profit organizations, directed a subagency of the U.S. Department of the Interior in the administration of President Jimmy Carter, authored or co-authored a number of books and reports on environmental issues, served in the administration of the late Chicago Mayor Harold Washington, and co-produced a documentary film called Shifting Sands: On the Path to Sustainability, on the history of the Indiana Dunes region. She died of natural causes on October 5, 2019.[1]


Born Leila Carman in northwestern Oklahoma and raised in that state and southwestern Kansas, Botts grew up in the heart of the Dust Bowl which she always described as a formative experience. She settled in Chicago in 1949 as newlyweds with Lambert (Bud) Botts (1924–2003) whom she had met when they were undergraduates at Oklahoma A&M University (now Oklahoma State University).

While raising four children in the city's Hyde Park neighborhood in the 1950s and 1960s, Botts formed a strong personal interest in the Indiana Dunes. Botts became involved as a volunteer in several local issues such as the Hyde Park-Kenwood Community Conference, and took a leadership role in the campaign which in 1966 resulted in the creation of the federal Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. In the early 1960s she was a columnist for, and then editor of, the weekly Hyde Park Herald.[2] In 1969 she became a staff member at the Open Lands Project, now known as Openlands, in Chicago.

In 1970, while on staff at Openlands, Botts founded the Lake Michigan Federation,[3] which today operates as the Alliance for the Great Lakes. Within the wave of new interest in environmental issues in the U.S. during that period, the Federation was the first independent citizens' organization dedicated to the protection and preservation of a specific Great Lake. The new organization persuaded Mayor Richard J. Daley to have Chicago become the first Great Lakes city to ban phosphates in laundry detergents, led U.S. advocacy for the first binational Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (1972), was a key advocate for the landmark federal Clean Water Act of 1972, and played a key role in persuading Congress to ban PCBs via the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act.

After several years leading the Federation, including numerous trips to Washington D.C. to lobby Congress, Botts spent two years as a staff member at the Region 5 office of the young federal Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA). In 1977 President Carter named her head of the Great Lakes Basin Commission, headquartered in Ann Arbor, Michigan. After all federal basin commissions were eliminated in President Ronald Reagan's first federal budget, Botts held for several years a faculty research appointment at Northwestern University followed by two years as a staffer and consultant for the City of Chicago's new Department of the Environment. In 1986 she narrowly lost an election to the board of Chicago's countywide wastewater treatment district.

Twice during the 1990s Botts traveled to the former Soviet Union to coach fledgling citizen-environmental groups.[4] She participated in an environmental information exchange with Russian officials and citizens around Lake Baikal in Siberia; led a workshop on citizen participation in Kiev, Ukraine; and helped organize a conference in Tartu, Estonia on watershed management for government officials, environmentalists and academic experts. Lee also served as an advisor to the Commission for Environmental Cooperation that was established under the environmental side agreement to the 1994 North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

In 1997 Botts realized a longstanding idea by leading the founding of the Indiana Dunes Environmental Learning Center, now the Dunes Learning Center.[5] Located within the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore at the former Camp Goodfellow, which was a summer camp for children of U.S. Steel employees during the middle of the 20th century, the learning center offers sleepover environmental education programs for grade-school students and teachers.[6]

In 2005 Botts co-authored a scholarly book on the landmark Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement.[7] She served on Indiana’s state Water Pollution Control Board (a division of the Indiana Department of Environmental Management) from 2007 to 2010.

Botts was a board member emerita of the Alliance for the Great Lakes and board president emeritus of the Dunes Learning Center, served on the board of the Delta Institute and the Save the Dunes Council, and was an advisor to other environmental groups including the Shirley Heinze Land Trust.[8]

Shifting Sands: On the Path to Sustainability, a 60-minute documentary film that Botts conceived and of which she was executive producer, was released in April 2016. The film, which depicts the natural history, the course of industrial development, and subsequent environmental restoration in the northwest Indiana dunes and surrounding region, has been shown on dozens of PBS stations and was nominated for a Midwest Emmy Award.[9] Botts collaborated on that film with producer and director Pat Wisniewski, co-director and co-writer of the award-winning 2013 documentary about the great Kankakee marsh, Everglades of the North.

Awards and recognitionEdit

In 1987 Botts was honored by the United Nations Environmental Program for making a difference for the global environment and has received awards from the USEPA and numerous local, regional and national environmental organizations and agencies. In 2002 the 1,400-member national Clean Water Network named her as one of the 30 persons who had made the most difference under the pioneering federal 1972 Clean Water Act.[10] Until 2010 she represented environmental interests on the Indiana Water Pollution Control Board. Most recently she was named one of 60 fellows for the Purpose Prize Institute from 1,000 persons nominated nationally, a program of the John Templeton Foundation that recognizes persons who make a difference in their communities after the age of 60. In 2009 she was among the first inductees into the newly created Indiana Conservation Hall of Fame in Indianapolis.[11] In 2008 more than 200 colleagues, family and friends gathered in downtown Chicago for an 80th birthday celebration event to benefit the Alliance for the Great Lakes.[12]


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  2. ^ "Environmental Award Winners". Hyde Park Herald. Chicago. 12 April 1978. p. 1. Retrieved 3 June 2012.
  3. ^ "Alliance's 'Lady of the Lake' Looks Back on 40 Years". Alliance for the Great Lakes. 2 March 2010. Retrieved 1 January 2011.
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  7. ^ Botts, Lee; Muldoon, Paul (2005). Evolution of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. Michigan State University Press. ISBN 0870137522.
  8. ^ "Board, Advisory Council, Committees and Staff". Shirley Heinze Land Trust. Retrieved 3 June 2012.
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  10. ^ "Clean Water Network Names 30 'Clean Water Heroes' on 30th Anniversary of the Clean Water Act". Natural Resources Defense Council. 18 October 2002. Retrieved 1 January 2011.
  11. ^ "Conservation Hall of Fame". Indiana Wildlife Federation. Retrieved 1 January 2011.
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