Michigan Land Use Institute

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Rivers at Risk

Broadcast commentary

December 7, 1996 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

When it comes to drilling for oil and gas in sensitive environments, it wasn’t very long ago that Michigan set the standard. In 1980, the state established a drilling plan in the Pigeon River Country State Forest, northeast of Gaylord, that protected the landscape even as it enabled Shell Oil to tap energy reserves worth more than $400 million.

At the center of the so-called Pigeon River Hydrocarbon Development Plan was a pact between industry, citizens, and the government. In return for being able to gain valuable energy reserves, Shell agreed to go the extra mile to install wells, roads, pipelines, and processing stations in a way that minimized damage.

The Pigeon River plan has worked remarkably well. A citizen-led advisory committee monitored the development. Shell Oil, acting as the sole manager, reduced harm by eliminating the need for duplicate roads, pipelines and other installations.

Contrast the careful analysis and high-minded debate of that era with what is occurring now in northern Michigan. Since 1988, a great swath of forest in 10 counties has been tattered by more than 6,000 wells, and thousands of miles of new roads and pipelines. In short, the unceasing North Woods struggle between encouraging sound land use principles and discouraging exploitation tilted the wrong way.

It is not clear when it will end. In next four or five years, some 2,000 more wells could be installed as the development reaches deeper into the forest. At risk of permanent damage are the last great wild places in the Lower Peninsula — the upper Betsie River, the Boardman River, Jordan Valley, the Au Sable, the upper Manistee, the Thunder Bay, and the Black and Sturgeon Rivers.

On December 1, the Michigan Land Use Institute published a 40-page report that urged the state to change its approach and called on the DNR and the DEQ to revive the planning principles that worked so successfully in the Pigeon River. The report, Rivers at Risk, challenged state officials to invite citizens into the planning process to develop a new ethic of cooperative management as their predecessors did two decades ago.

Hydrocarbon development planning is not intended to stop exploration. By deciding where drilling belongs and where it does not, the industry and the environment will both be served.

That is the kind of policy most Michigan residents support. The Pigeon River Plan has worked well in one region of northern Michigan. The Engler Administration and the Legislature now need to work with citizens to put these model principles into practice in eight others.

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