The state may allow drilling for oil underneath the largest remaining stand of virgin forest in the Lower Peninsula.
About 9,700 acres of Hartwick Pines State Park and surrounding land near Grayling are on a list of parcels nominated by oil and gas companies for lease of mineral rights. The lease of those parcels, which include the largest remaining old growth white pine trees south of the Mackinac Bridge as well as the rest of one of Michigan’s most popular parks, is likely to be included in a Department of Natural Resources auction Oct. 29.
No development would be allowed on the ground surface. But the leases open the possibility of slant or horizontal drilling under trees that have grown since the first Europeans stepped foot in the region.
While mineral exploration deep below the surface isn’t likely to harm the trees, the possibility of drilling raises concerns about the boom of oil rigs at a beloved state park, and is symbolic of the occasional tension in the state between business interests and Pure Michigan.
“There are some special places in the state that oil and gas development should not be happening,” said Jack Schmitt, deputy director of the Michigan League for Conservation Voters. “And Hartwick Pines is one of them.”
Hartwick Pines, just north of Grayling along I-75, is one of the largest state parks in the Lower Peninsula. The park contains four lakes, camping facilities and a logging museum. But the highlight of the park is a 49-acre plot containing the Lower Peninsula’s largest remaining old growth white pines. Some are estimated to be more than 400 years old – saplings at the time the first European explorer stepped foot in the forests that would later become Michigan. They were about 250 years old in the mid 1800’s when the trees in Michigan were clear cut for lumber.
Today, the tallest are about 165 feet high, with a diameter of almost four feet and a circumference of 12 feet.
According to the state’s website about Hartwick Pines, “This forest is a reminder of Michigan's past importance in the pine lumber industry as well as a source of inspiration for the future of our forests.”
The Department of Natural Resources holds two auctions a year to take bids for mineral leases on state-owned property. An online map shows parcels in each county that are up for bid in the next auction.
Parcels of state land are nominated for mineral lease by companies or individuals. (Hartwick Pines was nominated by Clayton Energy Co. (a Jackson-based company which nominated the park land at the request of a client whose name a company representative would not reveal to Bridge.) The state assesses the nominated parcels, pulling some from the nomination list and placing restrictions on others.
Nominations can be turned down by the DNR, which is now taking public comment on parcels considered for lease (See how to make a public comment below).
Most leases not drilled
Just because the ground underneath Hartwick Pines is available for lease, doesn’t necessarily mean there will be drilling under the park. In a typical auction, about two-thirds of parcels are bid on and leased; among those leased, fewer than 10 percent ever have any development during the five-year term of the lease, said Julie Manson, oil and gas lease management supervisor at the DNR.
“A lease doesn’t give them the right to drill,” Manson said. “They’d still need to get a drilling permit from the (state) Department of Environmental Quality.”
If oil or gas was found under the park, the state would receive part of the proceeds from extraction, Manson said.
That someone would ask to lease the mineral rights under Hartwick Pines probably wasn’t an accident, said Marvin Roberson, forest specialist with the Michigan chapter of the Sierra Club.
“Most of the oil companies have been doing this long enough not to propose a lease under a state park unless they’ve figured out someplace they can get to the minerals from another surface,” Roberson said. “In most cases, it’s because there are known deposits in the area or they’ve done seismic testings.”
Roberson said slant or horizontal drilling under the park – which could go 10,000 feet deep – would not hurt the virgin pines. “What can be affected,” said Roberson, “is our ability to enjoy standing in the virgin pines because we’re 150 yards away from an oil rig that’s louder than a rock concert.”
Calls for comment to the Michigan Oil and Gas Association were not returned.
Manson, of the DNR, said it was “fairly common” for the state to lease mineral rights under state parks. Negwegon State Park in Alpena County, Hayes State Park in Jackson County, and Clear Lake State Park in Montmorency all have active, non-surface development leases on at least some of their property.
That hasn’t calmed the nerves of environmentalists concerned about the Hartwick Pines lease.
“This is an area we’ve purposely preserved for decades,” said Lisa Wozniak, executive director of the Michigan League for Conservation Voters. “Off the cuff, it does not sound like a wise decision.”
Gov. Rick Snyder’s office did not return a request for comment.
Oil brings cash, jobs to state
Based on an analysis of historical auction bids conducted by a Michigan environmental group, Hartwick Pines leases could bring in as much as $300,000 to the state. Those proceeds go into the Natural Resources Trust Fund and parks development fund for acquisition of special lands and maintenance of state parks.
“Theres no doubt we get benefits from oil and gas drilling,” the Sierra Club’s Roberson said. “Like or not, oil and gas provide a lot of jobs in Michigan. It would be politically difficult to say, we’re just done with that.”
“I often don’t agree with them, but it’s my opinion that everyone in the DNR is doing what they think is best for the state,” Roberson said. “Their motivation is not under question.”
What is under question: Does allowing drilling anywhere on state land mean drilling should be allowed everywhere?
“Even if there is no surface development around the park,” said Schmitt, of the League for Conservation Voters, “I don’t think the optics are the wisest.”