The case against fracking in the George Washington National Forest

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The Forest Service is expected to decide next month whether to allow natural gas companies to use hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, to explore shale deposits in the George Washington National Forest. File photo The Forest Service is expected to decide next month whether to allow natural gas companies to use hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, to explore shale deposits in the George Washington National Forest. File photo

Trivia question: What do the Appalachian Trail, Sherando Lake, Crabtree Falls, Ramsey’s Draft Wilderness, and Cold Mountain all have in common? Answer: Each of these popular recreational sites is found within the George Washington National Forest, known to its friends as the GW.

The GW hosts more than a million visitors annually. They come to enjoy hunting, fishing, hiking, mountain biking, bird watching, and camping among some of the most beautiful trails and picturesque vistas imaginable. One million visitors. That’s equivalent to the population of Rhode Island, anchoring a vital, tourism-based economy.

The Forest Service, of course, knows this. Its website describes the GW as stretching “along the ruggedly beautiful Appalachian Mountains…Whether you are driving a back-country road, enjoying our glorious fall colors…or savoring the peacefulness of wilderness, remember that national forests are special places.”

Yet Forest Service officials are now considering whether to allow horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing for natural gas—or “fracking”—in the GW. In the spring of 2011, as part of required processes for updating its management plan, the Forest Service announced a draft proposal to prohibit horizontal drilling in the GW. In response to industry pressure, it is now reconsidering that proposal. A final decision is expected in June.

Hydraulic fracturing requires the injection of a fracking fluid—huge quantities of water, mixed with chemicals—deep underground to crack open shale formations containing natural gas. There is also the produced methane gas itself, which has leaked into drinking water wells near fracking operations in other parts of the country.

The evidence linking incidents of water pollution to drilling and fracking operations raises a particular concern for the GW, as the forest is a direct source of drinking water for over 262,000 people in local communities in and around the Shenandoah Valley. Even more, the GW lies within the watersheds for the Potomac and James rivers, which supply drinking water to Richmond, Washington, D.C., and a total of about 4.7 million people in the state and the region.

Yet drinking water contamination is not the only worry. Some of the most disruptive impacts of gas development, especially in the context of a national forest like the GW, are from the clear cutting and bulldozing required to build well pads, access roads for commercial trucks, and hundreds of miles of pipelines. All of which sets the stage for a major industrial activity and drilling equipment that can run 24-7.

In the 95 years since the GW was established, the forest has never been home to large-scale, natural gas production. We have a longstanding heritage in Virginia of appreciating and taking care of our national forests so that they are, as intended, public lands that benefit many and provide recreational opportunities and values that inhere to all of us.

For decades, there have been marriage proposals at the top of Reddish Knob and parents have taught their children to fish in the forest’s trout streams. I remember the first time my wife and I took our daughters camping in the GW, pitching our tent above the banks of the Tye River. Downriver were about a dozen Boy Scouts, energetic as hummingbirds.

Opening up the area to drilling is not consistent with how these lands have been and should continue to be used. It’s not too late to make your voice heard. Contact Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack (202) 720-
2791, or agsec@usda.gov), who needs to sign off on the Forest Service’s decision, and urge him to maintain a ban on horizontal drilling and keep the GW off limits for fracking.—Cale Jaffe

Guest columnist Cale Jaffe is director of the Southern Environmental Law Center’s (SELC) Charlottesville office.

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