This week the U.S. Forest Service released the George Washington Forest Final Revised Forest Plan. The plan was updated for the first time in over 20 years due to the prospect of high volume hydraulic fracturing (fracking) activities within the national forest.
Given the unique nature of the GW Forest, the Forest Service rightly put drinking water first and prohibited fracking throughout the forest in 2011. The GW Forest is the headwaters for an incredible 2.7 million people in the Northern Virginia and Washington, DC. Its watershed serves as a direct source of drinking water for 262,000 people in the Virginia Shenandoah Valley. It is only appropriate that the Forest Service originally suggested that fracking might be too risky of an industrial activity for this fragile landscape. Local public water suppliers, Virginia’s Governor Terry McAuliffe, and a broad coalition of local environmental groups agreed.
However, the final plan released this week reversed the original position. The Forest Service’s revised plan would now allow drilling in limited areas of the national forest. Roughly 176,000 acres of privately held leases within the forest are now eligible for gas development. The plan rightly safeguards the remaining 985,000 acres from natural gas development, a positive step and a prime example of a government agency listening to the local impacted community. However, the impacts of irresponsible drilling do not follow property lines. Fracking on any acre of privately held land within the forest has the potential to impact the rest of the ecosystem, including surface water and groundwater resources.
While there is no current expressed interest in drilling inside the national forest, the area does sit smack on top of one of country’s most profitable “shale plays” (as the industry views things). It could be only a matter of time and economics until gas drillers creep into this pristine forest land.
When considering future drilling proposals it is critical to remember the positive economic contributions an intact and preserved George Washington National Forest adds to the region:
- Recreational opportunities for more than 10 million people who live within driving distance of the forest
- More than 1 million people visit the park each year, and the park contains portions of the world renowned Appalachian Trail
- The land includes 4 of the top 10 agriculture producing counties
- The park injects more than $10 million into the local recreation and tourism economy, and contributes to the 138,000 recreational jobs created annually in Virginia
Clean Water Action stands with the local community groups in support of the Forest Service’s decision to ban fracking from the vast majority of the forest. We hope that any future proposals to drill examine the costs fracking operations and will weigh those potentially very serious costs against the substantial benefits the region receives from the Forest’s sustainable ecosystem and recreational economy, without fracking.