On November 18, 2014, the U.S. Forest Service released its new strategic plan for the George Washington National Forest (GWNF), which covers about 1.1 million acres in western Virginia and West Virginia. The new management plan, replacing a previous version in effect since 1993, is available online at http://www.fs.fed.us/gwjeff/index.php.
A closely followed and widely reported part of the new plan is its treatment of oil and gas drilling, particularly the use of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, to recover gas or oil. The new plan does not prohibit any particular oil/gas technology, including hydraulic fracturing, but the area where gas and oil drilling is allowed is being reduced from the current approximately 995,000 acres to about 177,000 acres.
While the new strategic plan attracted widespread attention for its natural gas drilling component (see the sample of Virginia and national news-media accounts below ), it covers many other land use and management issues besides natural gas and other energy-related activities, in accordance with the Forest Service’s mandate to manage national forests for multiple uses. According to the Forest Service’s Nov. 18 news release on the plan (available online at http://www.fs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/stelprd3823051.pdf), the main goals of the plan are the following:
*Assure water quality with increased streamside protections;
*Improve wildlife habitat, healthy forests, and local economic opportunities with prescribed fire and timber harvest;
*Enhance and protect recreation opportunities, including recommending for congressional designation a 90,000 acre National Scenic Area on Shenandoah Mountain located in Rockingham, Augusta, and Highland counties and 27,000 additional acres to the Wilderness Preservation System; [and]
*Provide a comprehensive, balanced strategy for energy development consistent with other resource values, including for wind and oil and gas.
News media accounts on the Forest Service’s decision on natural gas in the GWNF:
Limited fracking in national forest seemingly won’t affect Lynchburg’s reservoir, Lynchburg News & Advance, 11/19/14.
Conservation groups, political leaders support National Forest plan, Waynesboro News-Virginian, 11/19/14.
Fracking compromise in George Washington National Forest receives mostly positive reaction, Associated Press, as published by Richmond Times-Dispatch, 11/18/14.
U.S. OKs fracking in GW National Forest, Richmond Times-Dispatch, 11/18/14.
[U.S. Senators] Kaine, Warner praise George Washington forest fracking decision, Waynesboro News-Virginian, as published by Roanoke Times, 11/18/14.
Oil and gas decision in GW National Forest: Fracking, yes. Drilling, some; Christian Science Monitor, 11/18/14.
In Compromise Plan, Limited Fracking Is Approved for National Forest in Virginia, New York Times, 11/18/14.
Fracking gets green light in largest national forest on East Coast, CBS News, 11/18/14.
For more on natural gas drilling and transport issues in Virginia, please see the Water Central News Grouper post, Potential Natural Gas Drilling and Transport in Virginia under Close Scrutiny in 2014.