Lee Botts, 91

Environmentalist, writer, filmmaker

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Lee Botts, 91, an influential environmentalist, writer and filmmaker known for her work related to conservation and restoration of the Great Lakes and the Indiana Dunes, died on Oct. 5, 2019 at the Oak Park Arms. 

Born Leila Carman in Mooreland, Oklahoma, on Feb. 25, 1928, and raised in Oklahoma and Kansas in the heart of the Dust Bowl, she moved to Chicago with her then-husband in 1949 and raised four children, including Oak Parker Beth Botts, in the Hyde Park neighborhood. 

Through the Save the Dunes Council, she took a leadership role in the campaign, which in 1966 resulted in the creation of the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, now the Indiana Dunes National Park. In the early 1960s, she was a garden columnist for, and later editor of, the weekly Hyde Park Herald newspaper.

In 1968, Botts became one of the first staff members of the Open Lands Project, now known as Openlands, one of Chicago's earliest environmental organizations. In 1970, she founded the Lake Michigan Federation, now the Alliance for the Great Lakes, the first independent citizens' organization dedicated to the protection and preservation of the lake. That year she also participated in the first Earth Day observance in Chicago. 

Botts then worked for 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, a water planning and policy agency headquartered in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She later had a faculty research appointment at Northwestern University in Evanston

Later, she became the top environmental official in the administration of Chicago's Mayor Harold Washington and organized the city's first Department of the Environment. In 1986, she narrowly lost an election to the board of what is now the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, Chicago's countywide wastewater treatment agency.

In 1997, after she retired to the Indiana Dunes, Botts realized an idea she had long championed: establishing the Dunes Learning Center, which offers sleepover environmental education programs for grade-school students and teachers in the national park. Today nearly 10,000 students come to the center each year from school systems throughout Indiana, Michigan and Illinois. 

Twice during the 1990s, Botts traveled to the former Soviet Union, to Siberia, Estonia and Ukraine, to coach fledgling citizen environmental groups. She also served as an advisor to the Commission for Environmental Cooperation for North America, established under the environmental side agreement to the 1994 North America Free Trade Agreement.

In her early 80s, despite knowing nothing about filmmaking, Botts began work on a documentary about the founding of the national park and the history of environmental activism in Northwest Indiana. As executive producer, with Patricia Wisniewski as director, Shifting Sands: On the Path to Sustainability premiered on Earth Day 2016. It has been shown on dozens of PBS stations and at film festivals nationwide, including a showing in the One Earth Film Festival at the Oak Park Public Library. 

At various times, Botts was a board member or president of the Dunes Learning Center, the Alliance for the Great Lakes, Save the Dunes, the Shirley Heinze Land Trust, and the Delta Institute. She also sewed patchwork quilts with original designs and cultivated a garden of native plants that she called "my prairie." 

She received many awards and honors from local, regional and national environmental organizations and agencies.

Lee Botts is survived by her children, Karl Botts, Elizabeth (Beth) Botts of Oak Park, Paul Botts, and Alan Botts; her daughter-in-law, Heather McCowen; and her grandsons, Alex Botts and Theo Botts. 

In lieu of flowers, donations in her memory would be appreciated to the Dunes Learning Center in Porter, Indiana, or the Alliance for the Great Lakes in Chicago. A memorial celebration will be held later.

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