Environment Picture

Goliath, meet Rusty Gates

Au Sable Anglers, Sierra Club win long battle to protect Mason Tract
An undeveloped stretch of the Au Sable River—revered by fly fishermen and solitude seekers—will remain that way after a huge victory over oil and gas developers by MEC member groups Anglers of the Au Sable and the Sierra Club.

The fight pitted a Traverse City energy company, aided by state and federal agencies who signed off on the drilling plan, against an unusually committed coalition of anglers and traditional environmentalists who went to court to stop them.

At stake was the serenity of the “Mason Tract” of the Au Sable River—acreage deeded by the late auto executive George W. Mason in the 1950s to remain undeveloped for recreational use by the people of Michigan.

Savoy Energy planned to use federal land in the Huron-Manistee National Forest adjacent to the 5,300-acre Mason Tract of state forest to drill on a slant and extract gas from underneath the state land. Savoy refused to consider proposed compromise plans that would have minimized the noise, disruption and road building in and near the Mason Tract.

The company also has never made a public comment on the drilling plan or responded to media requests—an unusually closed-mouth communications strategy for a company proposing the use of public lands for private gain.

Finally, in 2008 a federal judge ruled in favor of the plaintiffs who sued to stop the project. They included Anglers, Sierra Club, and Mason’s grandson, Tim Mason, who had sued to stop the project. Federal officials officially declined to appeal on Dec. 23, 2008, giving Michigan’s most fabled trout stream an early Christmas present.

The battle began inauspiciously in early 2003 with a handful of people meeting with Rusty Gates, owner of Gates Au Sable Lodge near Grayling and founder of Anglers of the Au Sable (www.ausableanglers.org).

We spoke with Rusty about the victory and the future of the Mason Tract:

Jeez, why the big deal Rusty, it’s just a couple dirt roads and a drilling pad?
“This is a very, very revered recreational spot, and we’re talking about turning a two-track into a graded road, 60 feet wide with gravel and trucks coming and going every day. That and the drilling itself changes the whole character.”

Tell me about the first meetings you had to organize opposition to this project.
“I sent out an e-mail to a list of people. Within a half-hour, I had responses saying ‘where can I help?’ from Florida, Vermont, Seattle, San Francisco...that’s the kind of reverence the Mason Tract holds.

“We have a lot of lawyers and professionals who helped us right off the bat. Our first two years, we were able to do all our (legal and court) filings in house. That saved us six figures, easily.”

The Sierra Club was a key ally in this fight?
“Marvin (Roberson of the Sierra Club) walked in the door one day that fall and asked if I could show him where the drilling pad was going to be. We’ve gotten pretty tight. The Sierra Club, they were great.”

(Editor’s note: Roberson says Rusty taught him to fly fish, shattering his notion of fishermen in their “Billy Bob bass boats.” Now he can’t get enough of it!)

Do you expect Savoy Energy to come back and try again?
“I think they’ll be back.”

And do you think they learned anything?
“I don’t know. All they have to do is drill back a mile (from the river), and we’ll go away. Ultimately, we’d like to have a drill-free river corridor. The technology is there to be able to do that.”

What has this done for your membership?
“We’ve seen about a 25% increase in membership. But we saw about 50% of our existing membership up their giving. It raised red flags with them, and they wanted to fight it.”

What else should we know?
“We’d just like to thank everyone who supported us. We’re just a little group, but you’ve got to believe in that David-vs-Goliath thing. When you see something worth fighting for, go for it.”
-Hugh McDiarmid, Jr.
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