Tuesday the US Forest Service issued its long-awaited George Washington National Forest management plan, a document that will guide the uses and management of the 1.1 million-acre national forest, the largest federal land holding in the Chesapeake Bay watershed and one that includes headwaters of both the Potomac and James rivers.

Initial reaction to the plan was mixed, but largely positive. The plan balances timbering and possible oil and gas drilling with several new protections for the forest.

The management plan, which has been under deliberation since 2007, increases protection for streams by requiring 100-foot stream buffers and requires special watershed planning for priority watersheds that include impaired streams, sensitive ecosystems, or drinking water supplies. Under the plan, the acreage of four wilderness areas would increase, and a new 90,000-acre national scenic area would protect Shenandoah Mountain, pending Congressional approval.

The plan also allows drilling for oil and natural gas – by any means, including hydraulic fracturing -- in about 16 percent of the forest, where the forest service lacks jurisdiction because of previously secured private gas leases (10,000 acres) or mineral rights (167,000 acres).

The Shenandoah Valley Network and the Southern Environmental Law Center along with local community representatives lauded the plan for making the majority of the national forest unavailable to oil and gas drilling, which they said was incompatible with the forest uses and the region.

In 2010, attempts to conduct commercial drilling in Rockingham and Augusta counties, in the Shenandoah Valley adjacent to the national forests, were met by stiff opposition by local governments and citizen groups who cited concerns about drinking water supplies and incompatibility with the region’s agricultural base e.

“The Forest Service really took into account the existing uses and values of the community in developing the plan,” said Sarah Francisco of the Southern Environmental Law Center.

The Virginia Petroleum Institute hailed the plan for keeping Virginia “open to energy investment.” The forest lies atop Marcellus Shale deposits in the northwestern part of Virginia, though there has been no recent exploration, and the plan notes that profitable gas production in other parts of the country renders these holdings unlikely to be developed soon.

In the press release announcing the plan, the US Forest Service said that the plan “provides for recreation, wildlife and water quality” and offers “a balance of management decisions” that provide , in the long term, for the  ecological stability of the forest and the social and economic needs of “those that are dependent on or are impacted by” the forest.

At the same time, Wild Virginia, an advocacy group focused on preservation of intact forest systems, called the plan “a peculiar mix that affords greater protection to many parts of the forest and increased logging and management of the rest.”

The plan allows for the removal of 8.75 million tons of “unconventional timber” for biomass burning, which, according to Wild Virginia president Ernie Reed, “has no public benefit.” Reed said that the areas made available for small tree removal would mostly benefit the nearby MeadWestvaco plant in Covington, VA, which has recently installed a biomass-powered generator that supplies its electric power.

Wild Virginia also noted that the plan increases the number of acres suitable for timber harvest, which puts at risk the endangered Indiana bat, whose population has plummeted in Virginia due to white-nose syndrome.

But the “biggest imminent threat” to the forest, said Wild Virginia, is the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which would slice through Shenandoah Mountain, one of the largest intact forest systems on the east coast (see November 2014 Bay Journal, “Proposed natural gas pipeline slices through Virginia, national forests).

The pipeline, a project of an energy consortium being implemented by North Carolina based Duke Energy, is supported by Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe and others as an economic boon to the state. However, one of McAuliffe’s campaign promises was to prevent gas drilling in the George Washington National Forest.

SELC’s Francisco said, “It doesn’t seem appropriate to put a major piece of natural gas infrastructure on top of a place that is not appropriate for gas development.” But the forest planning process has been underway a long time, she said, and the pipeline project has only just begun what promises to be a lengthy environmental review.

At the time Bay Journal went to press, organizations and citizens were just beginning to review the plan’s 1,600 pages. They describe a multitude of activities, from appropriate wind energy development to enhanced recreational opportunities appropriate for the national forest.

Reed predicted that it is unlikely that there will be appeals to this plan from regional interests, because the majority of the plan is consistent with recommendations made by an independently convened stakeholder group that represented diverse interests, including timber operators, hunting and wildlife enthusiasts, and conservation groups.

The Forest Plan is the implementing guide for fulfilling the Forest Service’s mission “to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the nation’s forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations.”

“There’s something in this plan for everybody,” Reed said. “But this means that the forest really needs an advocate for preservation and conservation.”

The George Washington National Forest Plan can be found at www.fs.fed.us/r8/gwj. For additional information, contact the George Washington National Forest at (540) 265-5100.