Almost everyone agrees: the old state fish hatchery on the Au Sable River in Grayling is the worst place you could pick for a commercial fish farming operation. It is on the East Branch, just upstream from the famed Holy Waters, the heart of Michigan’s blue ribbon trout fishing industry, and the premier wild trout fishing destination east of the Mississippi. But due to a combination of factors, including politics, greed and governmental lawlessness at the state and local level, that’s exactly what is happening.
The state deeded the hatchery to Crawford County subject to a statute passed by the legislature and a deed which limited use of the property to public recreation and museum purposes, and which required the county to preserve the public’s right of ingress and egress for fishing. But in 2012, the Director of the Department of Natural Resources signed away the state’s right to enforce those restrictions. Crawford County leased the hatchery to the fish farm for 20 years for $1. The river is fenced off. In October of this year, a judge ruled that operation of the fish farm “clearly violates the statute and deed,” but the DNR has been sluggish at best in rectifying the situation.
The fish farm will pollute the river, so it needs a Clean Water Act pollution discharge permit, which was willingly granted by the Department of Environmental Quality with the urging of the Department of Agriculture and the Farm Bureau. It was justified on the basis that the operator would profit, 2-3 jobs would be created, and the hatchery would stay open as a tourist attraction in the summer (which could have been accomplished without degrading the river with a fish farm). Damage to the multi-million dollar sport fishing industry in the area, and the jobs it supports, was not even considered.
Photo credit: John Russell
At permit limits, the fish farm will discharge about 160,000 pounds of solids (fish feces and uneaten feed) and over 1,600 pounds of phosphorous into the river every year. It currently has no water treatment system, and none is planned, other than a low-tech “system” of “quiescent zones” which might be implemented at an unknown time in the future. The pollution will cause algae to grow, and the solids will create sludge beds. These will harm aquatic insects which the fish eat, reduce dissolved oxygen which they need to breathe, and increase the risk of Whirling Disease, which can decimate a fishery if it reaches epidemic levels. Escaping fish could breed and dilute the wild trout gene pool. Technology exists to remedy the problem, but the operator says it is too expensive.
All of this violated the property transfer statute, the deed, state and federal clean water laws, the non-degradation rule, and regulatory standards for phosphorous and dissolved oxygen in cold-water streams. And it violates the public trust right of the people to have access to the river for fishing and other recreational pursuits. It appropriates public trust waters for private gain.
The case is in litigation. Attorney, experts and other costs have exceeded $400,000 so far, with a long way to go.
The state’s approval of this operation shows either a lack of understanding of its public trust responsibilities – or a willful disregard of them. It will once again be up to citizens to do what their state government is supposed to do – assure there is no impairment of public waters for private benefit.
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Tom Baird is a board member of FLOW and the past President of the Anglers of the Au Sable.
The Successful Outcome of the Holy Water Mineral Leasing Issue Was a Product of Shrewd Planning, Coalition Building and a Sense of Urgency
It was a tight clock, and there was a long way to pay dirt.
This football analogy best captures the circumstances Anglers faced last October as it became evident that the [Michigan] DNR was going to allow oil and gas companies to bid for leases on land interspersed throughout the heart of the Au Sable [River], its Holy Water. Worse, a third of those parcels were designated “development with restrictions,” which would allow the construction of production facilities and the installation of drilling rigs, storage tanks, compressors, and the other equipment necessary for oil and gas production. At first there was shock, then anger, but there wasn’t much time to dwell on either.
The task was daunting. Still, Anglers of the Au Sable had done the impossible before. Folks who were at the Grayling Ramada in August of 2003 remember the forest of hands that were raised when somebody said, “Who here thinks that oil well is going in on the South Branch no matter what we do?” at a public meeting concerning that crisis. Then there was Kolka Creek — not as dramatic as the Savoy case but maybe more important. The consensus was that Merit Energy would have a free hand in remediating the Hayes 22 facility.
In the end, we won, sometimes with the help of friends, sometimes on our own. Our record is not perfect, nobody’s is, but we know the rules of the game.
In the Holy Waters mineral leases fight, we twice asked DNR Director Creagh to remove the parcels from the October mineral rights auction. After our requests for reconsideration were denied our work was cut out.
First up was the gathering of personnel. We needed experts in communication, issue management, folks with knowledge and connections within the state government, especially the Department of Natural Resources, and, of course, attorneys. Several conference calls were held in short order to get the ball rolling.
We began a behind-the-scenes campaign, including communications from some of our well-placed members, to the DNR, Nature Resources Commission, DEQ, and Governor’s office. There were some weeks when the negotiations had the frenetic feel of a peace accord, but we stayed the course. It is important to remember that those folks involved were also working regular jobs, had family obligations, and were dealing with the same holiday mishmash as everybody else. There were times for some when sleep came at a premium. But we received important signals from key governmental officials that our request was meeting with approval – if we could keep the pressure on.
Next up came building a coalition. Fortunately, the outrageous nature of the DNR’s plan – some likened it to opening the Pictured Rocks or Sleeping Bear Dunes to oil and gas development – aided us in our recruitment. We had partnered with many of the same organizations on sundry causes before. In a very short time Michigan Trout Unlimited (plus two local chapters), the Sierra Club, Michigan League of Conservation Voters, National Wildlife Federation, Michigan Environmental Council, and the Au Sable Big Water Preservation Association were all on board.
It was decided that we needed to go further than the “usual suspects” this time. We were grateful for their support, but everybody involved, including all of them, knew that the extra mile was necessary if we hoped to succeed.
An extensive outreach effort was made to bring in several “non-traditional” partners. It worked better than expected. The City of Grayling, Grayling Township, property owners associations, the Au Sable River Watershed Committee, FLOW, recreation and real estate businesses, and, the Michigan United Conservation Clubs (MUCC) all joined us. MUCC is an extremely important voice regarding conservation questions in Michigan, and having them with us added tremendous weight to our push.
A letter to the DNR Director was carefully crafted. In the end 17 groups, businesses and governmental bodies signed on to it. The letter was sent on December 6, 2013, and copied to any and all in government likely to have a say in the leasing decision.
Many of these organizations took up the reigns on their own, but always staying on message in a carefully coordinated plan of attack. Email blasts to their memberships were forwarded to friends and so on. Almost everybody knew within a day of two of operatives hitting the “send” button what the Holy Water lease issue was all about.
In the meantime, our Public Relations team put together maps, photos, articles and op-eds. We began planting stories with a selected group of reporters throughout the state including the Detroit News, Free Press, the Associated Press, and Michigan Public Radio. The Holy Water lease story was showing up everywhere. It put the oil and gas development issue on the agenda, and the whole thing started to resonate with the public.
And then it went viral. Citizens were now furthering what groups initiated. Perhaps the best example of this was from Robert Thompson, a member of Anglers who is a video producer in Chicago. Thompson was already working on a feature film concerning the Au Sable (watch for its release soon!) and had plenty of footage of the river. He created a 90 second collage of the Holy Water and superimposed the slogans from our “Save The Holy Waters Poster” while adding an affecting soundtrack. Now the cause had a polished, professional commercial (http://vimeo.com/81287261) rolling through the cyberspace.
The tables had turned dramatically in roughly a fortnight. In the public sphere the pressure was mounting with every Internet refresh. People from discrete backgrounds, many of which who were not the typical responders to this sort of thing, were making their views known to the powers-that-be. Thousands of emails and letters were sent to Director Creagh. Behind the scenes in a highly disciplined dance of advocacy our well-placed members were making headway.
And in the end it worked. As outlined in RIVERWATCH 67 (“DNR Director Creagh Joins Anglers in Saying ‘No Surface Development’ on Holy Water”) the Director relented. He allowed the leases, but only as “non-development” in the Holy Waters corridor. This was our objective: preventing development of oil and gas wells near this special piece of water.
Of course, the devil is in the details. We are now working with the DNR on lease language that will prevent changes in the surface use designation during the life of the leases. In addition, Director Creagh assigned his Manager of Mineral Leases to design a way to identify “special places” like the Holy Waters in advance, and, if they are nominated for lease, make it clear they will be non-development. That’s not all there is left to do by a long shot, but we’ve come a long way since last October.
To say that this outcome was one of the most successful efforts in the 27-year history of Anglers would be self-serving, but not necessarily any less true. Given the short window of time and the nature of the government in this right-of-center, “drill, baby, drill” era, it seemed unlikely that we could affect a favorable outcome. But we did more than that. Now there is dialogue. The issue of oil and gas leasing and fracking is far from resolved in our state. The path forward is not clear.
We have a blueprint, though, recently tested and found to be effective. It involves smart and committed people from varied backgrounds hammering out consensus. It involves new partners, who for the first time are seeing the downside of oil and gas development when allowed to proceed in places that are special. We need to keep the pressure on, through a campaign involving diverse voices from the conservation community, environmental groups, business and local government. It cannot succeed without respectful discourse with the decision makers. And, finally, it can only truly be effective when it has the support of the people.
So, you see, it’s really not self-serving to say this may have been one of the Anglers’ Finest Hours. It came about due to a hell of a lot of people putting in a hell of a lot of effort, and doing it in double time.