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New Report Calls for Vigorous Protection of Northern Michigan Watersheds

Pigeon River model recalled

September 1, 1997 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

A new report by the Institute, Rivers at Risk, calls for reviving Michigan's "hydrocarbon development planning" approach first used in the Pigeon River Country, which balanced oil and gas production with natural resource protection, and implementing it in nine more northern Michigan watersheds.

The report documents the historic Pigeon River model and describes a 10-point action plan that the state, the energy industry, local governments, public interest groups, and citizens can follow to build a constituency for applying this proven process to energy development statewide.

Shortly after the report's release in November, State Rep. David Anthony (D-Escanaba), chairman of the House Forestry and Mineral Rights Committee, announced that lawmakers would prepare legislation in 1998 to protect watersheds by establishing energy development plans based on the Pigeon River model.

In 1980 Michigan established the Pigeon River Hydrocarbon Development Plan, the nation's best land use program for developing oil and gas reserves in a sensitive environment. It was the result of a hard-won compromise that state policy makers, the energy industry, and environmentalists hammered out over the course of 10 years.

The Pigeon River plan has performed much as intended. Damage from energy exploration and development in one of northern Michigan's great forested areas was minimized, even as the region yielded oil and gas worth more than $400 million.

Among other things, the Pigeon River plan required energy companies to:

• Restrict oil and gas development to the southern third of the Pigeon River Country State Forest.

• Prepare a complete plan of development, showing locations of wells and facilities, and submit it to the state for review.

• Submit to oversight and monitoring by a citizen-led advisory council.

• Pool their resources in a "unitization" agreement, whereby one company developed and managed the oil and gas production and shared expenses and profits among all leaseholders.

• Comply with thorough provisions regarding wildlife and wetland protection, river and stream crossings,

noise, traffic, forest fragmentation, and site restoration once production ends.

During the past decade, northern Michigan has become the site of the most intensive natural gas development in the United States. The drilling, which has disfigured hundreds of thousands of acres of forest and damaged rivers and streams, occurred without a clear or cohesive management approach. This has been a serious mistake. The lapse in state oversight now has put at risk the last great wild places in the Lower Peninsula.

The proposals outlined in Rivers at Risk reflect more than three years of careful study and reasoned advocacy by staff members of the Institute and its partners in the Michigan Energy Reform Coalition. The report was funded by the Michigan Environmental Council's Land Stewardship Initiative, with additional funding from The Joyce Foundation and The Ruth Mott Fund.

One of the defining characteristics of the Pigeon River plan was that all of the land involved was owned by the state. The nine threatened watersheds addressed in Rivers at Risk contain both state-owned and privately- owned land. Modern hydrocarbon development plans therefore must:

• Give special consideration to the effects of oil and gas drilling on private property values.

• Coordinate with the land use plans of local governments.

• Balance fairly the property rights of landowners with precautions to protect communities and the landscape from haphazard development.

• Better coordinate the work of the Department of Natural Resources, the Department of Environmental Quality, and the Michigan Public Service Commission. The agencies need to: -- Develop a new ethic for cooperative management of oil and gas development. -- Jointly study the economic, land use, environmental, and health and safety issues associated with drilling in each watershed. -- Open the planning process to meaningful public participation by forming citizen advisory councils for each watershed.

Not since the controversy over drilling in the Pigeon River Country has public attention to oil and gas development been as keen as it is now. And never before has the risk from drilling to northern Michigan's wildest watersheds been higher. A natural legacy, one that provides the basis of the region's 21st-century economy, deserves to be protected using the pioneering approach first developed in Michigan.

For a four-page summary of Rivers at Risk, contact the
Institute at P.O. Box 228, Benzonia, MI 49616. Tel. 616- 882-4723.

The full 40-page report is available at no charge to members, and for $15 to non-members.

Michigan Land Use Institute

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Traverse City, MI 49684-5725
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