GW forestBy Peter Galuszka

Is nothing sacred? Of all groups, the U.S. Forest Service should protect the lands it controls, but today it introduced a plan that would allow limited hydraulic fracturing for natural gas in the 1.1 million-acre George Washington National Forest which straddles Virginia and West Virginia.

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe had opposed lifting the ban, although he supports other proposed gas projects in the state, such as the 550-mile Atlantic Coast Pipeline that would stretch from the fracked gaslands of Northern West Virginia over the mountains and southeastward to Southside and Hampton Roads and North Carolina.

Forest lands help supply drinking water to 4 million people including those in Richmond and Washington. Some of the forest land has so-called “Karst” topography made up of rock formation that can be dissolved. In those conditions, any leakage of methane, or the toxic, powerful chemicals used in fracking would be more, rather than less, likely to poison drinking water.

The only good news out of the new USFS plan is that before some 995,000 acres could be available for drilling and that amount will now be limited to 177,000 acres.

But what can’t they let it all be? If you head west where the heart of the Marcellus Shale formation has become one of the mega-meccas of fracked gas, you hear of impacts of all types from drilling. These have included fire, explosions, diesel generators roaring 24/7, drinking water effects, bright floodlights and so on. In fact, I am embarking on a drip in about an hour that will end up in frack-land and will report when I get back.

To be sure, natural gas drilling has been going on for decades in the Appalachian Plateau of the western slopes of the Appalachians. Few pipelines crossed eastward over mountains and it was rare to find many drilling rigs in those areas.

But the fracking craze continues unabated and is now a $10 billion industry in the Marcellus Shale formation. One potential new target could be a different formation that starts from Fredericksburg and slips under the Potomac northeast into Maryland. A Texas firm with a letter drop address has been talking about leasing rights for fracking. One assumes that if the leases are in place, they’ll be quickly flipped to an actual drilling company, but you won’t know who. Virginia is only in the very early stages of setting up state rules for fracking.

Environmentalists say natural gas can be an even worse carbon polluter than coal should methane be released. Some others believe that the biggest damage comes not from the actual fracking process with millions of gallons of water and chemicals but from faulty wells.

One can make an argument that gas is good because it has completely reorganized the global pecking order in terms of energy. It means the U.S. need not be beholden to machinations of the Middle East, Central Asia and the likes of Vladimir Putin.

What bothers me is the rush to frack. I remember back in the 1960s in West Virginia when mile after mile of mountain side had been ripped apart by surface miners. It was a cheap way to get at coal. Mystery companies were supposed to reclaim the mine site but rarely did because they’d bankrupt one alphabet soup firm merely to create a new one.

The fracking craze, if not properly regulated, could yield even worse environmental disasters.

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4 responses to “Fracking Our Pristine Mountain Forests”

  1. The Environmental Group that I consider to be conscientious and pragmatic is Environmental Defense with my second being Natural Resources Defense Council.

    EDF position on fracking is here:

    NRDC can be found by keying NRCD position on fracking…

    So I find myself more or less aligned with these two , both of whom, who seem to support fracking – with reservations involving best practices…

    what has killed the environmental movement with many folks is their seeming insistence to oppose energy to the extent it will force people to live in austere conditions…. that’s a perception… and it’s an easy one for the right to demonize – and they do.

    what we – who do care about the environment – have to do – is realize that if we appear (that’s an important word) to have no middle ground – we get discredited and in the longer run – ignored… or ridiculed.

    I hate being ridiculed… especially when it is undeserved… but these days unless you are dead honest clear about what you DO support – you get crammed…

  2. there might be some misunderstandings about the difference between National Forests in the East and National Forests in the west.

    In the west – they WERE pristine when they were created for the most part – they had not been exploited and the gov preemptively obtained them – and not without some latter day resentment from States and would-be resource entrepreneurs.

    But the forests in the East had been thoroughly exploited especially for their timber as many East Coast cities were built from trees in areas where the George Washington and Jefferson National Forests now sit.

    The land was despoiled. It had been thoroughly clear cut, burned.. hundreds of road cuts that you can still see once the leaves are off and there is light dustings of snow.

    they were running brown when it rained and turned the rivers they drained into – brown.

    this is documented in a book called “The Land Nobody Wanted”

    To this day – now that they are “protected” there is still pressure to exploit them and the Forest Service in the 1960’s developed a policy called “multiple use”


    finally – do not confuse the difference between the Dept of Interior National Parks and Monuments and other preserved lands with the Forest Service which has always considered the lands they manage as valuable resources that should be used – carefully – but used. The Park Service would consider that philosophy heretical.

    The Park Service will not even give VDOT additional right-of-way to expand a road – without – literally – an Act of Congress!

    The one thing about fracking that might change my mind – is if they can show contamination of aquifers and if that proved to be the case – I’d want to know how we can have oil wells that don’t contaminate aquifers but fracking wells that do – what’s the difference?

    we have millions of oil wells all over the country from California to Texas to Pennsylvania .. even West Virginia – and as far as I know – it’s not typical for the aquifer to be despoiled even as the oil wells actually drill through the aquifers which often sit above the oil.

    Now – I admit to being ignorant on a wide variety of issues so if I’m wrong on this – please show me.

  3. To clarify one point in support of Larry. When the Forest Service was established as part of the Dept of Agriculture, part of the charge from the US Congress to the Forest Service is “multiple use, sustained yield.” (Larry, if I remember my history correctly, the original intent was just use, with “sustained yield” coming later.) By law, the Forest Service is required to allow lands to be used for economic purposes. So, Peter’s angst about the Forest Service developing a plan for managing the exploitation of natural resources under Forest Service lands is misplaced. The Forest Service is simply following the law.
    If you want to preserve the land, Congress needs to transfer the land to the Dept of the Interior, National Parks section. There, the land is to be held as a public trust. “The National Park Service preserves unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the National Park System for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations.” (from the National Park Service mission statement.) Alternatively, Congress can pass legislation designating National Forest land as a Wilderness area, or a National Monument, or as part of the Wild and Scenic Rivers act, etc. My point is that if land is in the Forest Service, it is far game to have its natural resources exploited (minerals, hydrocarbons, or timber) unless Congress says otherwise.
    Note that I do not take a position on the “goodness” or “badness” of allowing fracking under the National Forest Service lands, only that such use of National Forest land is in keeping with the mission of the Forest Service.

    1. JNL has it right – not sure when the distinction between multiple use and sustained yield came about but I might well be using the older term.

      but yes.. the mission/mandate of the Forest Service is _NOT_ preservation like the Park Service mandate is.

      The Forest Service routinely leases out land to be timbered and there are existing energy operations on forest service lands .. but you will never so much more know the use policy than at hunting season!

      I’m always agog when I go to the hunting section at WalMart and/or see the numbers of folks carting ATVs around in the winter!

      and like JNL says -there ARE areas designated as wilderness or other preservational rather than exploitative/non-consumptive uses.

      I’m a life long camper – of all stripes (I prefer river camping) and there are very, very few people who actually want to enjoy the wilderness on a multi-day trip.

      Most want to “experience” for a few hours or miles, then hit it back
      to the showers and a restaurant or similar..

      Backpacking used to be all the rage in the past – and the AT was legendary for folks who were “serious” about backpacking. It was (and still is) a rite of passage for some… I love the concept of trail shelters but unfortunately, long ago, many were stripped down to bare floors because of abuses.

      at any rate – many folks – don’t know the difference between the Park Service and the Forest Service and they think both have the same mission!

      The biggest clue you have most of the time (not 100%) is that a Forest Service campground – invariably will not have showers and as often as not, it will be pit toilets which I would never ever in a million years call “pristine”!


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