The Mason Tract draws visitors from around the globe, and the Bush administration’s plans to drill the area have helped strengthen the burgeoning alliance between sportsmen and conservationists. “The once-omnipresent ‘Sportsmen for Bush’ bumper stickers in northern Michigan have virtually disappeared,” says Mackinac Chapter Director Anne Woiwode.
“Anglers are up in arms over this,” says Rusty Gates, president of the Anglers of the Au Sable and former Fly Rod & Reel magazine Angler of the Year. “We’ll be darned if they’re going to ruin one of the most special places we’ve got left.” Gates, who has been fishing the Au Sable for more than 40 years and runs a lodge there, has become one of the Club’s staunchest allies in the fight to protect the Mason Tract. “It’s a shame we haven’t been working together for the last 20 years,” he says.
Sierra Club forest policy specialist Marvin Roberson says the Club is getting more positive feedback from hunters and anglers than he’s ever seen. “This has been a very successful partnership—the sportsmen really know the ground up there, and we know the law. It’s the first joint effort of sportsmen and environmentalists in Michigan that shows our interests are more convergent than divergent.”
Even though the state owns the Mason Tract, the subsurface rights are controlled by the federal government, which in the 1990s leased out the oil and gas rights over the state’s objection. But anxious not to lose out on drilling revenue, the state then consented to a lease sale to Michigan-based Savoy Energy.
In 2003, Mackinac Chapter member Nancy Shiffler received notice from the Forest Service that drilling operations were being planned for the area, even though the agency had previously stated it wouldn’t drill there. Around the same time, Woiwode got a call from Glen Sheppard, editor of a sportsman’s newspaper, the North Woods Call, who had also gotten wind of the Forest Service’s plans, seeking to enlist the Club as an ally.
Since the surface of the Mason Tract is off-limits to development, drilling would have to be done on a slant, from outside the tract’s boundaries. The adjoining Huron National Forest contains some of the Lower Peninsula’s last true wilderness, including old-growth forest abutting the Mason Tract. Savoy Energy proposed to bulldoze a swath of old-growth less than a mile from the Au Sable River, and in late 2003 the state Department of Environmental Quality granted its approval.
A series of public meetings ensued, at which the Sierra Club recommended a site farther from the river that would leave the old-growth intact. “There are other places Savoy could drill with far less impact on the Mason Tract,” Woiwode says, “but the Forest Service failed to consider alternate locations. They ignored thousands of comments from people like Rusty Gates calling for protection of this world-class trout stream.”
At a 2004 public meeting in the town of Grayling, nearly 500 people showed up to speak out against drilling. “There have been more comments on this than any project in state history,” says Roberson. “A lot of people in northern Michigan think of the Sierra Club as primarily an animal rights group. But the president of the Grayling-area Chamber of Commerce got up and said, ‘I’d like to echo what the Sierra Club says.’ That was really something.”
In February 2005, the Forest Service granted Savoy Energy a permit to clear the old-growth abutting the Mason Tract in preparation for an 11,000-foot well, saying the activity would not harm the area’s prized fishing and scenic values. “Unadulterated baloney,” Roberson responded in the Detroit Free Press the next day, announcing the Sierra Club’s intention to appeal.
The Club filed suit against the Forest Service in June, joined by Anglers of the Au Sable and Tim Mason, George Mason’s grandson and a litigant on behalf of his entire family. Savoy Energy was prohibited from commencing operations, but only until December 1. In late November, the coalition’s lead attorney, Marianne Dugan, got a phone call from the Department of Justice saying bulldozing was to begin in five days.
Dugan requested an emergency restraining order to halt any activities to prepare the site for drilling until the judge ruled on the case. With Roberson and Rusty Gates, she arranged for two expert witnesses to testify, and on December 7, quoting both witnesses at length, a federal judge issued an emergency injunction blocking Savoy Energy from clearing any land until the lawsuit is resolved.
“This is a great example of a local, grassroots-driven campaign dovetailing with the Sierra Club’s national energy initiative,” says Club attorney Aaron Isherwood, who is working with Dugan. “This very local case helps educate Americans about the choices we have between smart energy solutions and the business-as-usual way in which treasured wild places get damaged to extract fossil fuels.”
In late March, a hearing was held at which both sides in the lawsuit were allowed to buttress their arguments. Among other things, Dugan says the Forest Service claims the noise from drilling operations is the same as the sound from a canoe.
Gates, who attended the hearing, e-mailed Dugan that evening: “I just might go fish the Tract tomorrow, even if it’s snowing and blowing, just because it’s the Tract—a place of solitude for those seeking quiet places. We’ve done our best to help keep it that way.”
For more, see sierraclub.org/planet/ausable.
Au Sable River photo from iStockphoto; Au Sable activist photo by Lance Weyeneth
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