Living next door to the 1.1-million acre George Washington National Forest, along the mountainous Virginia/West Virginia border, has both pros and cons.
Pros are clean air and water, many more tree neighbors than people, and the right of every citizen to tell the government how to manage this beautiful public forest.
Cons are tourists, forest fires and the right of every corporation to tell the government how to manage this bountiful public forest.
For the last three years, the management plan for the forest has been delayed as corporate and citizen voices made a discordant buzz. Yet the Forest Service has managed to make something harmonious out of the final plan that was released on Nov. 18, 2014.
Over those last three of my 30 years here, I’ve watched our maternity roost of little brown bats dwindle from dozens to zero and most of the hemlock trees die. Even that embodiment of childhood delight in discovery, the box turtle, has almost disappeared.
This forest is home to thousands of species of plants and animals that need wild forests to survive. It is the largest intact forest in the East and a globally ranked biodiversity hot spot, yet even here, about 200 species are rare or declining because of human impacts.
If life is any measure of stewardship, then the last thing the George Washington National Forest needs is habitat destruction through gas or oil drilling.
What has proliferated in the last three years are geological maps of the Marcellus Shale gas formation and drilling leases on thousands of privately owned acres around me. Most of the national forest lies atop the Marcellus shale.
Also during the last three years I took a frack-finding trip to a West Virginia Host Farm (www.wvhostfarms.org) in Doddridge County. The intensely industrial processes of hydraulic fracturing for shale gas (fracking) have deforested and polluted thousands of acres there. Shredded roads, fatal accidents, toxic spills, toxic fumes and residents with recently developed respiratory diseases were just part of all we learned. The drilling rig I fell asleep watching from the host farm window exploded two months later, killing two workers.
Back home, my human neighbors who at first thought fracking was like the hole-in-the-ground gas wells of the past, also spent the last three years educating themselves. The Texas gas company that leased land here is now letting its leases expire, citing a disappointing test well nearby, plus “local resistance.”
Anti-fracking sentiment was further expressed in more than 90 percent of 53,000 comments to the draft George Washington National Forest management plan issued by the Forest Service three years ago.
And it was those voices that prevailed. “The Forest Service listened to local concerns and made most of the forest unavailable for future gas and oil leasing in the new plan,” said Sarah Francisco of the Southern Environmental Law Center. “Only where minerals rights are not owned by the government, on scattered lands that comprise well under 20 percent of the GWNF, could any fracking take place. The public is much better served by protecting these natural systems that we all depend on for so many essential resources.”
National forests are a modern version of the commons, the most ancient, universal form of land tenure, and one that was traditional in these Appalachian Mountains. As a commons, the national forest benefits everyone, even people who have never heard of it. Millions of people annually gain clean water and air; erosion and flood control; carbon sequestration; timber and non-timber products; and opportunities for recreation, study and solitude available nowhere else in the East.
While the new plan sets higher targets for logging, prescribed burning, and biomass harvests than in the original draft, it also recommends more new and expanded Wilderness Areas and a large National Scenic Area. If Congress acts on the recommendations, these areas will be permanently protected from most forms of extractive use. This seems a reasonable balance that reflects the diverse demands of many diverse stakeholders.
It was courageous of the U.S. Forest Service to stop oil and gas leasing despite industry pressure, and I’m grateful. For three years, I have watched as my tree neighbors grew the three thin dendritic rings that will be hardly noticeable in the dense wood of an oak that can reach 600 years. Those trees, and all the lives they harbor, have a good chance of surviving under the new plan. And maybe the U.S. Forest Service’s rejection of industrialized energy in the George Washington National Forest will help against the next big threat: the massively destructive Atlantic Coast (fracked gas) Pipeline planned by Dominion Resources across the most ecologically sensitive parts of the forest. Life in the forest remains at risk.