George Washington Management Plan Still Stalled

Fracking Decision At Heart Of Holdup

Posted: February 5, 2014

A trail marker identifies the Timber Ridge Trail along Tilghman Road near Briery Branch in George Washington National Forest. The U.S. Forest Service has missed its completion target date of fall 2013 for the GW management plan. (Photos by Michael Reilly / DN-R)
Ice encrusts the edges of a small stream along Tilghman Road in George Washington National Forest last month. A potential ban on horizontal oil and gas drilling continues to hold up the management plan for the GW.

HARRISONBURG — After more than two years of estimating when a new George Washington National Forest management plan would be complete, U.S. Forest Service officials have declined to make another guess on when a final decision will be reached.

The plan, last revised in 1993, is generally updated every 10 to 15 years. The U.S. Forest Service most recently missed a completion target of fall 2013.

The forest occupies much of western Rockingham County, as well as a large section east of Harrisonburg. In all, the GW stretches across a dozen other counties in Virginia and West Virginia.

The biggest holdup is a decision regarding a potential ban on horizontal oil and gas drilling throughout the 1.1 million-acre forest.

When the Forest Service released its draft plan in 2011, it received more than 53,000 letters and comments. The vast majority of the comments — at least 49,000 — supported the proposed ban.

About 36,500 of the comments were submitted by the Natural Resource Defense Council, which supports the ban but wants the Forest Service to go even further to prohibit other kinds of drilling to protect the GW’s resources.

Under the existing forest plan, nearly all the forest is available for leasing for the harvest of natural resources such as oil, gas and minerals, with no such restrictions.

Forest Service officials working on the draft plan have been considering other options, such as a partial ban. But changing anything in the proposal, particularly the gas leasing process, causes a ripple effect that inevitably leads to changes in many other areas of the proposed blueprint as well, said Ken Landgraf, planning staff officer for the forest.

“We’re looking at the full gamut,” he said.

Horizontal drilling is a method used during hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which makes it economically feasible to drill into deep beds of shale for natural gas.

One such bed is the Marcellus formation, a subterranean shale deposit that runs from New York southwest through Tennessee. Part of the formation runs through western Virginia, including the forest.

Fracking, which can be used for both oil and gas extraction, has received much national attention, largely because of concerns about its effect on water sources close to drilling operations.

Local groups have been fighting hard for the Forest Service to maintain its proposed ban in the final version of its management plan.

The Harrisonburg-based Community Alliance for Preservation is waiting for the government’s next step in the process, but Executive Director Kim Sandum said she was encouraged in December when the Rockingham County Board of Supervisors wrote another letter to the Forest Service in support of the ban.

The city of Harrisonburg also supports the proposed ban on horizontal drilling.

“We’d trade water for natural gas and the natural gas may not stay in our community, but the water certainly does,” Sandum said.

Industry advocates deny that fracking, when done properly, is dangerous to those who rely on the nearby water supplies. Environmental advocates, however, counter that those claims by the industry are deceiving.

Industry experts who say that fracking isn’t harmful to groundwater aren’t necessarily telling the whole story, said Sarah Francisco, a senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center in Charlottesville. She explained that when most people use the term “fracking,” they’re talking about the whole process, but industry advocates use the term to describe the specific action that occurs when high-powered blasts of water fracture rock formations.

Francisco said they’re right to say that aspect of the process has not been linked to water pollution. It’s the overall process, she said, that has been linked to water-quality problems.

“The George Washington is, in many ways, a unique forest. It’s so special,” she said. “It’s so important for us here in Virginia. Bringing this kind of heavy industrial activity, on this scale, to the forest is just not appropriate.”

Fracking Dangers Debated

The Environmental Protection Agency has not yet made a determination on potential dangers fracking imposes. The agency started an extensive research project on the impacts of hydraulic fracturing at the request of Congress in 2011, and issued a progress report in late 2012 with research updates but no preliminary findings.

A draft of the study is expected to be released for review by scientific peers later this year.

While no drilling has occurred in the Virginia portion of the Marcellus formation, it could be a target for future exploration of natural gas. The GW’s draft plan states that it will not allow horizontal drilling because of the “questionable nature of the development potential on the Forest, along with the high level of concern for water quality.”

Previous reports have stated that more than 260,000 people directly rely on water sources that stem from the forest, and 4.5 million rely on it indirectly.

In the past, few companies have expressed interest in horizontal drilling in the George Washington, Landgraf said.

Greg Kozera, a regional sales manager for Pennsylvania-based Superior Wells Service, said it’s unlikely that the forest will ever see active horizontal drilling.

“Realistically, there probably never will be,” he said. “Or probably not in my lifetime. It’s just not an area that’s going to be very productive.”

Still, industry advocates argue that the effect of a ban on fracking would have far-reaching implications.

One ban could lead to more, Kozera said, which would be detrimental to those wanting to work more productive forests around the country.

Landgraf would not say which way the Forest Service is leaning with regard to the ban, but said he is hopeful the plan will be approved sometime this year. He gave no guarantees.

Other Aspects Of Plan Delayed

Debate over whether to retract or revise the proposed ban has significantly slowed the approval process, and has postponed implementing other aspects of the plan that Landgraf said could be beneficial for forest users and flora and fauna alike.

There are no issues with using the 1993 plan — it’s a solid one, he said — but the new plan, if approved, could address issues regarding prescribed burning, timber harvesting and which parts of the forest to recommend for congressionally designated wilderness areas.

“We’ve got a better feel for what the forest users would like to see in the new plan,” he said. “Not having the plan done, we aren’t able to use that information and address some of those new user concerns as quickly as we would if we got the plan done.”

Although the draft plan is more streamlined than the 1993 version, not much about the forest’s management will change, Landgraf said. The biggest difference is a new emphasis on doing more prescribed burning to thin parts of the forest and give vegetation a better chance to grow.

In 1993, the forest had planned to burn about 3,000 acres per year. The 2011 draft calls for about 20,000 acres.

Many parts of the draft are identical to the 2004 plan for the Jefferson National Forest to make the management plans more consistent between the two nearby forests, which were administratively combined in 1995.

Landgraf estimated that the Forest Service has spent about $2 million working on the plan since 2007, which may be slightly more than what it costs to create and adopt other national forest plans because the GW’s process has been stalled so many times.

Contact Kassondra Cloos at 574-6290 or kcloos@dnronline.com



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