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.
Photo courtesy of Anglers of the Au Sable
"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).
Photo by Adolph Greenberg
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."