By Dave Dempsey
The State of Michigan’s decision last Friday to revoke and terminate the 67-year-old easement across the Straits of Mackinac granted to Enbridge for the Line 5 petroleum product pipelines was more than that day’s news—it was an event that will be remembered in the state’s environmental history.
Governor Gretchen Whitmer, Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Director Dan Eichinger, and Attorney General Dana Nessel announced the decision based on Enbridge’s consistent track record of deception, subterfuge, and poor stewardship, which put at risk a large area of the Great Lakes and the people, industries, aesthetics, and public uses dependent on them. Legally, it was a sound decision under the Public Trust Doctrine, but politically it was difficult. The same is true of most of the milestones in our environmental past. Dedicating Northern Michigan lands to building a public forest out of ravaged land in the early 1900s, standing up to developers who wanted to despoil the Porcupine Mountains in the 1950s and 1960s, and laying down the law on flagrant polluters in the 1960s and 1970s all took political guts, supported by law.
The Line 5 shutdown announcement brought to mind the epic fight over protection of the Pigeon River Country State Forest in the 1970s and early 1980s. This northern Lower Peninsula gem had fed the imagination of a young Ernest Hemingway and had been cobbled together by P.S. Lovejoy, considered Michigan’s equivalent of Aldo Leopold. Lovejoy dubbed the preserve “The Big Wild” and said it “should be left plenty bumpy and bushy and some so you go in on foot—or don’t go at all.”
The discovery of petroleum reserves under the Pigeon River Country State Forest in 1970 fueled an unwise decision by the DNR to offer drilling leases to petroleum companies. Determined to fight for the Big Wild, a legion of individuals, conservation and environmental groups, and editorial writers turned the battle into a test of state priorities. Specifically, weren’t there some publicly owned areas of the state that should be off limits to resource exploitation because of their beauty and significance, and the risk of a catastrophic accident? Governor William Milliken, urged on by First Lady Helen Milliken, took the side of the protectors.
The contest rose all the way to the Michigan Supreme Court, which ruled in 1979, under the Michigan Environmental Protection Act, that drilling could result in unacceptable destruction of the Forest’s herd of 255 elk. Coupled with another Supreme Court decision the same month on a separate drilling appeal in the Forest, the decision effectively barred drilling there.
It was a monumental victory for the forest protectors, but it also sowed the seeds of a partial defeat. Michigan’s economy was struggling and oil companies wooed lawmakers with visions of riches from petroleum development. Rather than lose everything, some members of the coalition of forest guardians compromised on a limited, phased development plan. And out of the controversy rose the idea of dedicating revenues from petroleum development on state lands to public land acquisition. That idea grew into the constitutionally protected Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund, which has now spent more than $1 billion to give the public access to state and local parks, Great Lakes shoreline, scenic wonders, hunting and fishing recreation, public forestland, and more.
The parallel to Line 5 is not exact except in its lesson that a persistent, well-organized, and well-informed citizen coalition is critical to protecting the best of Michigan. And it shows that public officials who look beyond the moment can take action with significance for decades to come.
Last week’s announcement was one of the finest hours in Michigan’s conservation history. The battle is far from over, but it is headed toward protection of our Great Lakes. I am proud that FLOW and its public trust law and advocacy were a big part of it.