Sierra Club, Anglers Prevail in Fight to Protect Legendary Trout Stream
Creative Commons photo courtesy of Pretty Emmy
After a nearly decade-long battle, the Sierra Club and Anglers of the Au Sable won a huge victory when Savoy Energy, a Michigan-based oil-and-gas exploration company, withdrew a permit request to drill for gas underneath the Mason Tract near northern Michigan's Au Sable River. The Mason Tract and the Au Sable are hallowed ground for anglers, sportsmen, outdoor recreationists, and conservationists.
"This is a victory for everyone—the environment, the state of Michigan, and the people who enjoy and appreciate the beauty of the Au Sable River," says Anne Woiwode, director of the Sierra Club's Michigan Chapter.
Featured in the book Fifty Places to Fly Fish Before you Die, the Au Sable is a Wild & Scenic River, a designated blue ribbon trout stream, and is widely considered to be one of the premier brown trout fisheries east of the Rockies—many would say in the entire Lower 48. Anglers, who come from all over the world to fish the Au Sable, refer to one especially renowned stretch of the river as "the Holy Water" (pictured below).
Among the many heroes in the fight to protect the Au Sable and the Mason Tract are Sierra Club forest ecologist Marvin Roberson, chapter volunteer Nancy Shiffler, Sierra Club attorney Marianne Dugan, and Calvin "Rusty" Gates, who founded Anglers of the Au Sable in 1987 with five other Michigan anglers. A former "Angler of the Year" in Fly Rod & Reel magazine, Gates served as president of Anglers of the Au Sable from its founding until 2009, when he died at age 54 after a year-long battle with lung cancer.
"Rusty was a quiet guy, but when he spoke, people listened," says Bruce Pregler, the current president of Anglers of the Au Sable. "He knew how to find the right players and get them involved. We met with Marvin in 2003 and developed a battle plan, and the Sierra Club brought key people to the table for us, like Marianne Dugan, who was just phenomenal. Once we got in the trenches it was a total team effort. This victory is a tribute to the perseverance of the Sierra Club and Anglers of the Au Sable."
Savoy Energy's proposal to drill in a renowned angler's paradise helped cement the alliance between sportsmen and conservationists in Michigan. "Anglers are up in arms over this," Gates said in 2006, when the area was still very much under threat. "We'll be darned if they're going to ruin once of the most special places we've got left."
Two years earlier in the town of Grayling, the closest town of any size to the Mason Tract, 500 of the town's 2,000 residents showed up to speak out against drilling at a public hearing. Roberson says Savoy's drilling proposal elicited more public comments than any project in Michigan's history. And the Sierra Club and Anglers of the Au Sable were the catalysts for this outpouring.
"The combination of the Sierra Club's policy expertise coupled with the extensive on-the-ground knowledge of Anglers of the Au Sable made for a terrific partnership," says Roberson, pictured below in the Mason Tract. "The Mason Tract is safe for now, but we have to stay vigilant and hope this sets a precedent so other companies won't try to foolishly drill near our few remaining precious pieces of wilderness."
The 4,700-acre Mason Tract, which borders the Au Sable, boasts spectacular fishing, hunting, canoeing, cross-country skiing, and hiking. It was bequeathed to the state as a gift by auto executive and naturalist George Mason, who directed that the property never be developed. The tract was designated "Forever Wild" by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources more than 50 years ago.
But "forever" apparently meant "for now"
In 2003, Michigan Chapter volunteer Nancy Shiffler learned that Savoy Energy had applied for a permit to build a drill pad in an old-growth area of the Huron-Manistee National Forest and use "slant drilling" techniques to get underneath the Mason Tract.
"I'd been involved in the planning process for the Huron-Manistee National Forests several years earlier, so I was on the mailing list for any of the Forest Service's proposed activities," Shiffler says. "When I received notice about plans for drilling that would extend into the Mason Tract, I referred back to notes, letters, and minutes from those earlier meetings where the Forest Service was very clear in its recommendation that there be no surface drilling on the site."
To Shiffler's alarm and dismay, Savoy was now proposing to clear-cut five acres of old-growth forest, install a brine pit and processing equipment, and build access roads through the "forever wild" tract. Adding insult to injury, the drill pad was proposed to be located near the Mason Chapel, below, a non-denominational, open-air chapel used by fishermen and other river users to sit and contemplate the Au Sable.
Shiffler immediately alerted Woiwode and Roberson. Meanwhile, Rusty Gates, proprietor of the Gates Au Sable Lodge on the river—smack in the middle of the 11-mile stretch known as the "Holy Water"—also discovered the permit application and alerted Roberson. "If Nancy and Rusty hadn't brought this to my attention, there would be a well there right now," Roberson says.
Below, the Holy Water near Gates Au Sable Lodge.
With the help of a group of attorneys who volunteered their time, Roberson and Gates tracked the project to make sure correct procedures for approval of an application to the Forest Service were being followed. "They weren't," Roberson says. "That's when we decided to team up with Anglers of the Au Sable to fight the project in earnest."
Aaron Isherwood, now a senior attorney with the Sierra Club's Environmental Law Program but then a relatively new associate attorney, got a call from Roberson in early 2004, telling him about the Mason Tract situation. "I told him we needed the very best NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) lawyer I knew," Isherwood says—"my friend and University of Oregon law school classmate Marianne Dugan."
The Sierra Club suggested an alternate drilling location that would have kept the Mason Tract safe from the impacts of drilling. The alternative was rejected by the Forest Service. The Club and Anglers of the Au Sable appealed the Forest Service decision and lost. That's when Dugan saw no alternative but to sue.
Below, an autumn day in the Mason Tract.
In June 2004 the Sierra Club, Anglers of the Au Sable, and Tim Mason, George Mason's grandson and a litigant on behalf of his family, filed suit against the Huron-Manistee National Forest for failing to adequately assess all viable alternatives to the proposed well siting. In 2008 a federal judge agreed, remanding the case to the Forest Service and requiring that a full Environmental Impact Statement be conducted. The EIS was still underway when Savoy withdrew its permit application on September 22, 2012.
"Savoy is not a large company," Roberson says, "and frankly, we just wore them down. They hit a producing field elsewhere, and while they didn't say this, our guess is they decided their resources were better spent on a known producer than on an exploratory well which after nine years still had no permit, and had a committed set of foes. And through the whole fight, Marianne Dugan was just a rock star."
"Although the law was on our side," says Dugan, "it was the outrageous facts of this project that, I think, got the court's attention and led to careful legal scrutiny of this project. This project would not have been stopped without the focused, tireless efforts of Rusty Gates, Marvin Roberson, Anne Woiwode, and the other local grassroots folks who dug out the truth about the true impacts of the proposal. I was honored to meet Rusty and the other people who cared enough to save this beautiful place from an illegal, badly conceived drilling project."
Says Isherwood: "The Michigan Chapter's success in saving the Mason Tract from destructive drilling is a perfect example of tree-huggers and anglers working together to save a national treasure. When it comes to saving our most precious wild places from the 'drill, baby, drill' ideology of the far right, it's key that we reach out to non-traditional allies like hunters and anglers who often care as much as we tree-huggers do about protecting natural areas. In fact, when Marvin first told me about the drilling threat in 2004, he reported seeing anglers tearing 'Sportsmen for Bush' bumper stickers off their cars!" That's Ishwerwood with Woiwode, below.
"This is a why the Sierra Club has been around for 45 years in Michigan and 120 years in the nation," says Woiwode. "We have a vast network of dedicated, vigilant volunteers like Nancy and knowledgeable staff like Marvin who know what to do and have the willingness to stay in the fight until it's won."
Saving the Mason Tract from drilling, preventing old-growth forest from being clear-cut, and sparing the Au Sable from the air pollution, water pollution, and noise pollution that Savoy's project would have would entailed is a victory for everyone who uses, enjoys, and appreciates special wild places. And in a very real sense, the victory stands as Rusty Gates' legacy.
"Back in 2008, when the federal judge ordered the Forest Service to stop all activities related to the Savoy project and conduct an Environmental Impact Statement, there were a lot of requests for interviews," recalls Bruce Pregler. "I naturally called Rusty—he'd played a leadership or man-behind-the-scenes role in virtually every project the Anglers have undertaken.
When I reached him, he was out on the Au Sable fishing. I told him, 'Rusty, PBS wants to talk with you,' and he said, 'Bruce, you take care of it—you were in the trenches with me.' He wasn't doing any of this for fame or notoriety. He was doing this because he loved the river."