Michigan Land Use Institute

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Rivers at Risk

Economic Value of Resource Protection

Northern Michigan's watersheds contain the last great forested landscapes in the northern Lower Peninsula. They are ecologically important as habitat for hundreds of species of plants and animals, including those that are threatened and endangered.

Wetlands and thick timber cover in these watersheds protect the rivers from erosion, help maintain the high water quality on which the region's aquatic life depends, and protect against flooding.

These "ecological values" have a direct influence on northern Michigan's resource and recreation-based economy. The timber, sport fishing, hunting, tourism and growing service industries are based entirely or in large part on maintaining the wild, scenic, and refreshingly clean nature of the region's rivers and watersheds.

Oil and gas development in these regions has steadily degraded the landscape, and in so doing has put economic and ecological values at risk.

Forest fragmentation and industrial activities resulting from runaway Antrim development in Montmorency County, for example, has driven away potential homeowners and tourists. Forest fragmentation also has diminished habitat for songbirds and changed the migration and hunting patterns of other wildlife.

The intent of hydrocarbon development planning is to minimize damage from oil and gas development in sensitive environments. Reviving this process for nine threatened river watersheds in northern Michigan not only will reduce harm from the roughly 2,000 more Antrim Shale gas wells that are expected in the next five years, but also from other future energy development.

The Michigan Land Use Institute and its partners in the Michigan Energy Reform Coalition consider the following rivers and their watersheds to be most at risk from poorly-managed oil and gas drilling. Since a large amount of the land in these watersheds is publicly-owned, they are excellent candidates for land use management programs that incorporate hydrocarbon development planning.

The counties listed for each river are the ones experiencing the most active oil and gas exploration and development, particularly in the Antrim formation.

Since Antrim development began in the late 1980s, the most intensive drilling has centered on Montmorency and Otsego counties. In the last 18 months, the focus of Antrim drilling has moved eastward into Alcona, Alpena and Oscoda counties. Energy companies also are heading south into Crawford County, west into Antrim County, and north toward Cheboygan County.

During the first nine months of 1997, the state's most active drilling occurred in the following five counties: Montmorency (130 new wells), Alcona (92), Alpena (77), Otsego (41), and Antrim (34).

The Au Sable River

In Otsego, Crawford, Oscoda, Montmorency, and Alcona counties

The Au Sable River and its many smaller tributaries drain 1.2. million acres in eight northern Michigan counties. The 129-mile-long main stream -- and several major tributaries -- were added to the state Natural River program in 1987.

The Au Sable is known by anglers world-wide for its exceptional trout fishery.The river passes through a heavily forested landscape that also especially appeals to canoers.

The river has two major branches. The South Branch, which starts in Roscommon County and flows northwest, has not been an area of heavy Antrim gas development. It was, however, heavily affected by energy drilling in the 1950s and 1960s.

The North Branch, which begins in Otsego County, flows through one of the most intensively drilled landscapes in the nation. More than 1,000 Antrim gas wells were drilled in the region during a five-year period beginning in 1988.

The region downriver from Otsego County, where the Au Sable flows through the mid-sections of Crawford, Oscoda and Alcona counties, has become a new center of activity. Energy companies have been leasing heavily on both sides of the river. In fact, some of the most intensive leasing activity in Michigan has occurred on state and private land in northern Crawford, northern Oscoda, and western Alcona counties. Northern Crawford and Oscoda counties also have been the scene of exploratory drilling, as companies test the boundaries of the Antrim formation.

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