July 31, 2008

EDITORIAL: Botched Oversight Helps No One

By The Record-Eagle, Traverse City, Mich.

Jul. 31--For those who wonder why so many people don't trust state or federal regulators to aggressively represent the interests of the public, the latest Mason Tract battle is a tutorial.

A few years ago Savoy Exploration of Traverse City announced plans to slant drill for natural gas under the Mason Tract, a 4,700-acre wilderness area along the South Branch of the Au Sable River 15 miles east of Grayling.

The land was donated as a public preserve in 1954 after the death of auto executive and outdoorsman George Mason.

The actual drilling site was to be on federal forest land just outside the Mason Tract; there, three acres of old-growth forest were to be clear-cut and a pipeline and production factility were to be built. Roads to the site were to be widened.

Plenty of people, including a lot of fishermen who love the Au Sable, environmentalists and others who value the Mason Tract for its beauty and solitude, complained that the work was too close to the river and would compromise the wilderness nature of the area. Federal and state officials approved the drilling plan.

In 2005 the Anglers of the Au Sable, the Mackinac Chapter of the Sierra Club and Tim Mason, George Mason's grandson, sued. The issue: Did the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service follow their own rules in performing an environmental assessment of the project and in reviewing mineral leases?

The answer, which came as no surprise to people who follow these issues, was no. U.S. District Judge David Lawson of the Eastern District of Michigan ruled the Forest Service "acted arbitrarily and capriciously in finding that the leaseholder's proposed drilling project would have no significant environmental impact."

"Arbitrary" and "capricious" are hardly words that should be associated with federal oversight. In other words, the decision to allow drilling did not meet conditions set by law. Lawson also said environmental reviews were "inadequate," which means someone didn't do their job.

These are the people we rely on to protect or not our environment? Who do they think they work for? Why don't they simply do the job they were hired to do?

The oil and gas industry gripes plenty about environmental wackos and liberals (interchangeable terms to some) but the Forest Service sure didn't do Savoy any favors. Three years after the initial OK, Savoy's request is dead in the water.

Retrieving oil and gas is important. The aesthetics and solitude of the land are important. Divining the place in between is too important a job to be bungled.



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