Michigan Legal Milestones
35. Elk, Oil, and the Environment

A 1979 landmark Michigan Supreme Court case (West Michigan Environmental Action Council, Inc. 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.

Resources

Complete Text on Milestone Marker

Elk, Oil, and the Environment

During the 1970s, the Pigeon River Country State Forest—home to the only substantial wild elk herd east of the Mississippi River—was the scene of one of the longest, most controversial environmental battles in Michigan history. As the largest piece of undeveloped state-owned property in the Lower Peninsula (covering portions of Otsego, Cheboygan, and Montmorency counties), the forest sits on huge reserves of oil and natural gas.

At a time when fuel shortages were causing long lines at gas pumps, oil companies were eager to explore and drill in the 91,000-acre forest. In 1970 the Michigan Environmental Protection Act (MEPA) gave any person or organization the right to sue to protect natural resources. Concerned citizens and environmentalists, emboldened by MEPA, banded together to halt drilling for oil and natural gas in the forest, claiming it would harm wildlife, especially the elk.

For almost 10 years, the two sides engaged in a series of lawsuits, consent orders, legislation, and compromises. A 1979 landmark Michigan Supreme Court case (West Michigan Environmental Action Council, Inc. v. Natural Resources Commission) not only provided guidance on the type of harm that will justify MEPA relief in Michigan but also 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 under the watchful eye of the Pigeon River Advisory Council.

Decades later the forest has yielded valuable gas and oil reserves while the elk herd has continued to grow. Not only did the Pigeon River dispute set standards for future oil drilling in Michigan, it became a national and international model for resource management.

Placed by the State Bar of Michigan and the 46th Circuit Bar Association, June 9, 2010