Drilling for gas in the Marcellus Shale in the George Washington National Forest would be greatly restricted under a draft management plan for the forest, the largest single federal landholding in the Bay watershed.
The draft plan, which is open to public comment until Sept. 1, would prohibit horizontal drilling - the type of drilling usually done to exploit the deep Marcellus pockets - in the 1.1 million-acre forest. The current management plan has no such restriction.
"We heard a lot of concerns from a lot of people, a lot of local communities," said Ken Landgraf, the Forest Service staffing officer for the plan.
Extracting natural gas from the Marcellus Shale, a formation underlying parts of six states from New York to Virginia, has been hugely controversial because accessing it requires drilling deep wells, then drilling horizontally to access deposits. Huge amounts of water and a wide variety of chemicals are pumped into the well under high pressure to break up rocks, a process called hydraulic fracturing, or hydrofracking for short. The process creates large amounts of wastes that have contaminated streams and caused other problems in some places where drilling has occurred.
At the same time, the plan opens much of the forest to conventional vertical gas drilling. Although vertical wells often use hydrofracking, they produce less waste.
Landgraf said there has been little interest in vertical drilling in the past. Only 12,000 acres have been leased, and no wells drilled in the forest.
Sarah Francisco, senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center in Charlottesville, VA, said the horizontal drilling ban was "obviously very positive because it would essentially prohibit large-volume hydraulic fracking."
But she said more analyses should be done before vertical wells are allowed in the forest. "These wells, in all likelihood, would still have to be hydrofracked," she said. Francisco also said some areas, such as watersheds for drinking water supplies, could still be available for drilling under the plan.
On another controversial energy issue, the plan leaves open certain areas of the forest to windpower development, although it puts 450,000 acres of sensitive areas off-limits to wind farms. Wind turbines can impact bird and bat populations, and the development of access roads can affect soil and water resources.
Francisco said the plan would still allow wind development in some significant scenic and biological areas, and said any "industrial scale" wind farm development should take place on private land. "We feel like there are other opportunities without locating that on the national forest."
So far, Landgraf said, the national forest has received only one request for a wind farm, which was rejected two years ago.
In a move that could help the Bay, the plan places new emphasis on protecting and restoring priority watersheds. Those include watersheds with sensitive aquatic species, that supply drinking water or have water quality concerns. "National forests were created to protect water, so water is a big focus for us," Landgraf said.
He said the Forest Service efforts would include fixing problems from eroding roads, abandoned mines or undersized culverts and other activities that destabilize stream channels. In addition, it would prioritize restoration activities in those areas to promote healthy ecosystems.
Another priority of the plan, which will guide forest management for the next 15 years, is expanding the width of riparian forested corridors, especially in areas where sensitive species or other important resources are found.
The plan would allow 3,000 acres of timber harvest a year, about the same amount as the current plan, but a level that often is not achieved. Most of the harvest is intended to improve habitat and promote forest diversity.
The plan anticipates greater recreational use of forest land, as about 9 million people live within 75 miles of the counties where it is located. It also recommends one new 9,000-acre wilderness area, and proposes adding 11,300 acres to three others.
Most new road construction would be prohibited, and 160 miles of existing forest roads would be decommissioned.
The forest is in Virginia and West Virginia. It contains the headwaters of the James and the South Branch Potomac.
For plan details, or to comment, visit www.fs.fed.us/r8/gwj.