Heroes of the Ohio River Valley

Attorney Jennifer Garrison helped working people earn “life changing money” with a novel oil and gas leasing tactic. (Photo/Keith Schneider)

MARIETTA, OHIO – My definition of a hero is someone who defies convention, dares to challenge the powerful, does well by the public good, and deepens their own sense of purpose. I’ve crossed the paths of a number of these select individuals over the years, written about quite a few of them, and earned sufficient trust to call a handful of them my friends.

Stewart Udall, Secretary of the Interior in the 1960s — one of the greatest conservationists in our history, a legal warrior for victims of the American atomic bomb making industry — was a close friend before he died in 2010. Jim Olson — dean of environmental lawyers in Michigan who’s preserved miles of rivers, cleared pollutants from lakes, conserved great stretches of forest and wild habitat and helped me start the Michigan Land Use Institute in 1995 — is a dear friend.

One of the regions of the United States that enchants me with its singular influence on the American economy and culture, and the way industry, community, and nature form an uncommon heritage along its banks, is the Ohio River Valley. I’ve spent some time now getting to know its features, writing about its industries and cities, and learning about its citizens. Here I salute three, among others, as heroes.

Jennifer Garrison is a lawyer, a former three-term Democratic member of the Ohio House of Representatives, and the developer of a novel oil and gas leasing strategy that earned about 1,000 eastern Ohio landowners $300 million in income from development of the Utica shale. I met Garrison in Marietta, Ohio in 2012, soon after she’d convinced working families who owned land and controlled their mineral rights to join together and lease their minerals in large multi-thousand-acre blocks. This tactic defied the common method by drillers to single out and negotiate leases, one by one, and take advantage of rural families inexperienced in valuing bonuses and production royalties.

Nice touch. Jennifer Garrison framed this New York Times piece I wrote about her work in 2012. (Photo/Keith Schneider)

Garrison’s cooperative unified approach provided mineral owners considerable influence in gaining much higher value for their minerals, and much larger signing bonuses and royalties, for agreeing to let fuel developers set up drilling rigs and production platforms on their ground. Garrison’s leases also included safeguards for land and water that went well beyond state requirements for fossil fuel exploration and development.

I visited with Garrison this week in her office in a renovated 19th century home on Third Street. She’s thinking about retiring from her legal practice, expressed disappointment that none of her grown children plan to live near Marietta, and might set up a landowner rights organization. Campaigning in the public interest is in her blood. She laughed and said, “I know how much work that will be.”

In my travels along the Ohio I met two other people that merit inclusion in my gallery of heroes. One is Ron Payne, former mayor of Owensboro, Kentucky, who led that city’s campaign to rebuild its riverfront and downtown business core. In the process of enacting a tax increase, and recruiting state and federal investments that raised $125 million, Owensboro also succeeded in attracting about $150 million in private investment that has remade the city into one of the most innovative and thriving places on the Ohio River.

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