Angling for a Healthy River A fly fisherman wades in to save the Au Sable By Marilyn Berlin Snell
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In The Longest Silence: A Life in Fishing, Thomas McGuane writes that "the best angling is always a respite from burden." But those who love to fish the Au Sable and want it protected have increasing burdens to bear.
The threat today comes from a Traverse City, Michigan, company that wants to drill for natural gas. Savoy Energy has leased subsurface mineral rights from both the state and federal government and has also secured a drilling permit from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. The company is determined to begin its search about a quarter mile from the Au Sable's south branch. The proposed site is on federal forestland next to the Mason Tract, a swatch including old-growth forest and 11-plus stream miles donated to Michigan in 1955 by the estate of prominent industrialist George Mason. Savoy plans to set up shop on adjoining federal land and drill at an angle to reach the gas underneath the tract. Originally 1,500 acres, the Mason property grew to 5,300 after the state consolidated and added a patchwork of 40-acre parcels. The only structure on the tract is a slate open-air chapel, used for weddings, picnics, or simply quiet meditation (visitors canoe in, since it's pretty much inaccessible any other way). A plaque on the chapel, placed there by the state, reads: "Here may the fisherman receive the same inspiration which led George W. Mason, a true sportsman, to bequeath to the public this land and this sanctuary beside his beloved river." It's a safe bet that Mason would not be amused to know that a natural-gas drill rig, pipelines, and a production facility are planning to move in next door.
The ordinarily unflappable Gates becomes agitated when we start talking about the drilling threat. "Look, the key to this thing is that this area has precious recreational value. The prime time for fly fishermen is the first three hours after dark and the hour before dawn--when the woods are utterly silent. We'll be able to hear that production facility; it will ruin the experience. That's what this whole thing is about."
At a public meeting on the issue near Gates's home in Grayling--population less than 2,000--500 people showed up. Most everyone railed against Savoy's plan, including the president of the local chamber of commerce, Tim Zigila, who publicly supported the anti-drilling position of both the state Sierra Club chapter and the Anglers of the Au Sable. Later he tells me, "This was an easy call for the chamber. Drilling will be bad for business up here. More than 70 percent of our county is either state or federally owned. Our opposition to drilling is not necessarily an environmental issue; it has to do with quality of life and the fact that it's inconsistent with recreation--and we're a big recreational area."
Michigan senators Carl Levin (D) and Debbie Stabenow (D) and representative Bart Stupak (D) followed up the public outcry with letters opposing the drilling permit. Stabenow's letter, addressed to Leanne Marten, supervisor of Huron-Manistee National Forests, said, in part, "Michigan is blessed to have areas in our state, such as the Mason Tract, that are protected and provide beautiful natural settings for people to visit and enjoy. We have a responsibility to safeguard this area for future generations." Bumper stickers emblazoned with "Sportsmen for Bush," once popular in Gates's neck of the woods, started disappearing from the backs of pickup trucks.
Gates and the Anglers of the Au Sable's board members--several of whom are lawyers--didn't believe for a minute that the stream's character would be unchanged if drilling were allowed. They were up in arms over what they saw as a violation of their right to peace and quiet on public land. Last summer, the Anglers joined forces with Tim Mason, George Mason's grandson, and the Sierra Club and filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Forest Service. The suit contends that the Forest Service did not seriously explore the environmental threats posed by Savoy's project or consider alternatives to drilling so close to the tract, thereby violating the National Environmental Policy Act.
"This place is sacred to us," Gates says. "Even though the drilling would occur outside of the tract boundary, it's still too close to the river. What they want to do here would change things forever, and we are going to fight them tooth and nail."
When asked whether it was tough to team up with the Club, an organization not wholly embraced in America's backcountry, Gates laughs. "I know they're called tree huggers and such. We think of ourselves as fishermen trying to improve habitat and save what's left." But, he adds, "I can't imagine why we never aligned ourselves with these guys in some of our other battles. To tell you the truth, I just didn't know the Sierra Club existed."
The collaboration has been a headache for the Forest Service, which now must defend its permitting decision in court. Marten did not return phone calls. Her spokesperson simply said, "No comment."
Before I leave the Au Sable Lodge, I stop by the tackle shop one last time and notice that behind the cash register and above Gates's head hangs a photo of a verdant pine- and poplar-lined path through the forest. The caption is addressed to the Forest Service and reads: "This path leads to the River where we regenerate our souls. Where do you see a gas well in this picture?" It was produced by the Anglers of the Au Sable.
Gates shows me a check some guy just dropped off as his membership fee for the Anglers. The suggested amount is $25, $50, or $100; the check is for $3,300. Gates shrugs and says, "He heard about the fight and wants to help. This is where they fish! This is their head time, and they don't want people messing with it."
I pick up a few books on fishing and then drive to one of the Au Sable's access points. I take off my shoes and socks, roll up my pant legs, and wade into the river. The water is cool and pleasant, the pebbles smooth and easy to maneuver even barefoot. I walk to the middle and see not a soul up- or downstream. A small trout flits by like a shadow. The wind comes up and ruffles the water in long patches. The foliage sways and swooshes in the sudden breeze. Mourning doves offer their melancholy notes, but besides these sounds there are no others. As I stand midstream, it begins to sprinkle, then picks up the pace; it is wondrous to be out in the Holy Water, surrounded by rain and green and free of any human noise or trace.
A few months after my visit, a federal judge in Michigan stopped Savoy in its tracks. Without holding a hearing on the matter, the judge blocked the company from clearing land until he issues his final decision, undeclared by press time, on whether drilling will be allowed. I hope he's a fly fisherman.