Pigeon River Country

State Reps Want to Drill Last Protected Wilderness in the Lower Peninsula
by Drew YoungeDyke

This post originally appeared on the Michigan League of Conservation Voters blog. Republished with permission.

The Michigan Constitution directs the legislature to protect natural resources as a "paramount" concern to the people of Michigan. Paramount means "above all else," the highest priority. 

Instead, the state House Natural Gas Subcommittee, chaired by Rep. Aric Nesbitt (R - Lawton), released a report on April 24 which recommends "drilling and extraction of minerals in currently prohibited areas."

If that quote doesn't outrage you, it should. There are very few truly remote, wild places in the Lower Peninsula that offer the solitude and natural connection sought by hunters, anglers, campers, and hikers, and the habitat required to preserve healthy and abundant fish and wildlife communities. Those few places exist only because they were deliberately set aside from gas and oil development. They include places like the Jordan River Valley, the Mason Tract, and the Pigeon River Country. 

These places are located, however, in the middle of a swath of natural gas and oil deposits that span the northern Lower Peninsula. Wells have been drilled and haul roads have been built through almost every patch of private and public land bigger than 40 acres throughout the region, except for these few unique protected places.

The recommendation in the Natural Gas Subcommittee's report would open these lands to drilling and erase the last pockets of true semiwilderness in the Lower Peninsula. In doing so, this recommendation indicates a profound ignorance of the history of conservation in Michigan, because we've already had this debate. The system currently in place is a compromise that grew out of decades of dispute that resulted in the Natural Resources Trust Fund. 

The Pigeon River Country debate over drilling in the 1970s reached all the way to the Michigan Supreme Court. The Court prohibited drilling, but subsequent legislation forced a compromise which allowed limited drilling in the southern third of the 105,000-acre forest and prohibited it in the northern two-thirds. Drilling is also prohibited in the 18,000-acre Jordan River Valley, where in 2007 the DNR acquired mineral rights to the valley through a mineral exchange in order to prevent drilling. The 4,700-acre Mason Tract, along the South Branch of the AuSable River, was donated to the state by George Mason in 1954. Attempts to drill beneath the Mason Tract from an adjacent parcel resulted in a permit denial by a federal judge in 2008.

The Natural Gas Subcommittee's recommendation to open these unique places to drilling indicates either complete ignorance of the debates, the lawsuits, and the compromises that went into protecting them or a callous disregard for the hunters and anglers who love them. Unfortunately, the latter seems more likely; this recommendation is just the latest example of a larger agenda to open up the last wild places in the nation to oil and gas development, as evidenced by the Wilderness and Roadless Area Release Act introduced in the U.S. House and Senate.

Michigan conservationists have worked for generations to protect the last few pockets of the closest thing we have to backcountry in the Lower Peninsula. We can't rest on their laurels, though. Proposals like this tell us that some politicians will stop at nothing to destroy the last best places in order to raid every last drop of fossil fuel in Michigan. Those of us who care about these places - the hunters, anglers, hikers, campers, backpackers and birders - have to oppose bad ideas like this loudly and vigorously. 

If you'd like to help us fight proposals to open these lands to drilling, you can sign up here for Michigan LCV Action Alerts



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