Dispute over elk and oil SBM's next Legal Milestone

The State Bar of Michigan’s 35th Legal Milestone “Elk, Oil and the Environment” will focus on the decade-long battle in the 1970s over drilling for oil and gas in northeast Michigan’s Pigeon River Country Forest.

A dedication ceremony will be held at noon June 9 at Treetops Resort Wilderness Cabin just east of Gaylord. The bronze plaque will be installed outside the Otsego County Courthouse in Gaylord.

The 91,000-acre forest—home to a substantial elk herd and sitting on huge reserves of oil and natural gas—was the scene of one of the longest, most controversial environmental battles in Michigan history. Oil companies and environmental groups engaged in a series of lawsuits, consent orders, legislation and compromises.

A 1979 landmark Michigan Supreme Court case (West Michigan Environmental Action Group v Natural Resources Commission) eventually led to an extraordinary agreement between state government, the oil industry, and environmental groups. It allowed tightly regulated drilling in the southern one-third of the forest, which decades later has yielded valuable gas and oil reserves while the elk herd has continued to grow.

Citing probable damage to the only elk herd east of the Mississippi River, the high court banned exploratory oil drilling in the northern lower Michigan forest.

The court concluded oil exploration would harm natural resources in the area, saying Ingham County Circuit Judge Thomas Brown erred in deferring to the Department of Natural Resources on whether drilling would damage the environment.

The court wrote: “While we understand the trial judge’s reluctance to substitute his judgment for that of an agency with experience and expertise, the Michigan environmental protection act requires independent, De novo determinations by the courts.”

Citing the state’s Environmental Protection Act, the court decided to block the drilling of 10 exploratory wells.

“The Pigeon River dispute and ultimate resolution is just as relevant today as it was 30 years ago,” said State Bar President Charles Toy, who will share master of ceremony duties with State Bar Executive Director Janet Welch.

“It not only set standards for oil drilling in Michigan, but it became a national and international model for resource management,” added Toy.

Other scheduled speakers at the ceremony include:
• Roger L. Conner, former executive director of the West Michigan Environmental Action Council.
• Webb A. Smith, senior attorney for Foster, Swift, Collins and Smith of Lansing, who represented Shell Oil Co
• Thomas L. Brown, former Ingham County Circuit Court judge.
• Ken Glasser, chair of the Pigeon River Advisory Council.

The State Bar’s Michigan Legal Milestone program was developed in 1986 to authenticate and recognize historical landmarks in Michigan’s legal history. The program is overseen by the State Bar’s Michigan Legal Milestones Subcommittee, chaired by Michael Ellis.