Au Sable-area drilling OK'd Conservation groups vow to fight gas well under Mason Tract http://www.freep.com/news/mich/drill2e_20050202.htm February 2, 2005, BY HUGH McDIARMID JR., FREE PRESS STAFF WRITER Natural gas drilling in some of the Lower Peninsula's last true wilderness was OK'd by federal regulators late Tuesday. Conservation groups immediately promised a last-ditch appeal. The U.S. Forest Service approved a plan by Savoy Energy of Traverse City to drill a well under the Mason Tract of forest near the Au Sable River, concluding that it would not negatively impact an area prized for trout fishing and scenic vistas. "After the proposed drilling operation is completed and the area restored as required, visitors to the Mason Tract would not be able to see or hear the operations of the well or the production facility," wrote Leanne Marten, forest supervisor for the Huron-Manistee National Forests in a news release Tuesday. "Unadulterated baloney," replied Marvin Roberson, forest policy specialist with the Sierra Club's Michigan chapter. He said the group, likely in tandem with the Anglers of the Au Sable organization, would appeal the decision within 90 days. Other groups may also file appeals, he predicted. It will be the last option short of a lawsuit before Savoy is allowed to drill. Savoy officials did not return phone calls placed to their office this week and have not responded to written requests from the Free Press for interviews. Drilling opponents had been buoyed in recent weeks when U.S. Sens. Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow and U.S. Rep. Bart Stupak asked the Forest Service to deny the permit. But those hopes were dashed with Tuesday's decision -- the final regulatory hurdle for Savoy. State Department of Environmental Quality regulators granted their approval in late 2003. State officials said they had no legal grounds to stop the company from drilling but required Savoy to install industrial-grade mufflers, limit their construction operations to winter months, and promise to restore the landscape to its natural state when construction is complete. Environmentalists, anglers and hikers fear noise from the construction and operation of the 11,000-foot exploratory well will spoil the serenity of the 5,300-acre tract of state-owned forest near Grayling. Though the state owns the tract, its mineral rights are administered by the federal government, which granted drilling leases to Savoy in the 1990s with virtually no input from state officials or public notice. Savoy will drill from a location on federal land underneath the Mason Tract, in a search for natural gas. If gas is found, requests for other wells in the federal forest could be forthcoming, state officials have said. The land was named for George Mason, who donated 1,500 acres that started the tract upon his death in 1954. He stipulated that the land be maintained as wilderness. It includes large stands of jack pine, red and white pine, oak and other hardwoods. It also is the ground of Mason Chapel, an open-air riverside church that has hosted weddings, baptisms, meditation sessions and ash-scatterings.