Drilling near the Mason Tract

Update on the battle over drilling near the Mason Tract
Rusty Gates

EDTU members have been acutely interested in the continued battle over the proposed gas well drilling near the Mason Tract, through which the South Branch of the Au Sable River flows. EDTU has also given monetary support to the Anglers of the Au Sable in the past, and will be sending a donation in support of their efforts to block the proposed drilling. Rusty Gates, president of Anglers of the Au Sable, sent the following report about the status.

Please feel free to send contributions directly to Rusty at the address below or send your contribution to us and we’ll include with our contribution.

In May of 2003, a proposal for an exploratory gas well was submitted to the MDEQ by Savoy Energy, L.L.C. The site for the proposed wellhead is adjacent to the Mason Tract, only 0.6 mile from the South Branch and 0.3 mile from the Mason Chapel. The actual bottom hole is located under the Mason Tract. In the event that gas is discovered, a production facility
would be constructed nearby. These events would significantly diminish the pristine nature of an area that has been a favorite to fly fishers and other outdoor enthusiasts for fifty years.

Anglers of the Au Sable and several other concerned parties have fought this project tooth and nail over the last two years. Hundreds of hours of volunteer time have gone into this effort. Thousands of dollars have been spent. Despite all of this we have been thwarted at every turn. The latest setback involved the appeal of the USDA Forest Service Decision
Notice (DN) and Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI). Since the Bush Administration has fast-tracked mineral extraction, the long-standing process for three opportunities to appeal has been scrapped. Our only remaining option is to take the USDA Forest Service to court.

Anglers of the Au Sale will be joining the Sierra Club and the Mason family in a legal challenge in the Federal Court system. This is our last chance to stop the drilling, or, at the very least, alter a number of the conditions of the project that are simply unacceptable. The DN/FONSI was poorly constructed as well as inaccurate, incomplete and contradictory in much of its reasoning – it is considered by experienced conservationists to be the worst ever written in Michigan. We believe this gives us an excellent chance to overturn the decision and restrict the industry from drilling in other sensitive areas in Michigan.

We have hired one of the best National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) attorneys in the country. Marianne Dugan is from Oregon and has filed 82 such cases, and won 75. We like these odds. Legal fees have been cut in half and capped at $50,000 for this case, plus expenses, through the appeal process if necessary. We have been warned to expect this legal action to reach close to $100,000. While we have considerable resources within the club, it’s clear that we’re unable to fund this challenge alone.

In the past, Anglers has always used membership dues to fund projects as well as grants from partner conservation organizations. This is a unique situation. The first $50,000 we can come up with. Unfortunately, we’ll not be able to fund the trout habitat and river restoration you’ve come to enjoy, but we’ll manage. It’s the second $50,000 that will require everyone’s help. That is why I am asking your organization and membership to help us with a donation to this legal action.

This is our beachhead. It must be held. If we fail here it is very likely that oil and natural gas drilling will be permissible just about anywhere in our state. The draft for the new USDA Forest Service Huron-Manistee National Forest Plan proposes 88 new oil and natural gas wells in the South Branch/Mason Tract area alone! Unless this project is stopped or drastically altered to be more considerate of the surrounding area then the Mason Tract and the whole South Branch region will never be the same. It won’t stop there.

At one time or another almost every fly fisher has cast to a riser on the South Branch. All within the boundary of the reserve that George W. Mason so unselfishly and wisely left to everyone a half century ago. In essence, we are upholding
the Legacy of George W. Mason. If there has ever been a good fight, this is it. We owe future generations what Mr. Mason gave to us! If there has ever been a case that is exactly what we are all about as fishers and conservationists, this is it.