George Washington National Forest

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Award lauds collaborative approach to forest management in George Washington National Forest More »

The George Washington National Forest Stakeholder Collaborative recently received the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service’s 2015 Partners and Community Engagement Award. The group was recognized for its collaborative approach to planning national forest management and building consensus among a wide group of interests. SELC has participated in the group since its formation in 2010.

The collaborative consists of 20 local organizations and individuals with diverse interests who worked together on the revision of the George Washington National Forest’s management plan and the Lower Cowpasture Restoration and Management Project. The group first met in 2010 with the aim of developing recommendations for the new management plan.

“We worked for a year just to learn from one another, listen to different perspectives, and identify ways to meet group members’ goals,” said Senior Attorney Sarah Francisco, leader of SELC’s National Forests and Parks program and the SELC representative in the collaborative. “Ultimately, through hard work and dedication to a collaborative approach, along with great leadership by the steering committee, the group was able to reach consensus on a number of issues regarding management and protection of the GW that had long been contentious.”

The group submitted joint comments on the draft plan, outlining a vision for protecting core intact areas of the forest and focusing active management around the periphery. Many of the ideas presented in the comments were reflected in the final plan, released in 2014, including recommendations for additional Wilderness and National Scenic Area designations, as well as additional areas and objectives for restoration and management of forest ecosystems, enhancement of habitat for certain wildlife species, and timber harvest.

The group continued to work together on the first large-scale project to implement the new plan, the Lower Cowpasture Project. Finalized in December, the project is the first in the George Washington National Forest to be developed through an open, collaborative process, with early public engagement and frequent opportunities for input. The final project plans include timber harvest, forest thinning, and other activities, along with ongoing public involvement and enhanced monitoring and study during implementation.

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Protecting a Treasured Place

The largest national forest in the east, the 1.1 million-acre George Washington National Forest in western Virginia and West Virginia has been a favorite destination for generations of outdoor enthusiasts, from hikers and campers to hunters and horsemen. These public lands are also a haven for wildlife such as black bear, songbirds, native brook trout and many other species, and are the source of clean drinking water and economic benefit for dozens of communities.

Important Protections for this Beloved Forest

The George Washington National Forest (GW) is managed by the U.S. Forest Service, which released a long-term management plan for the forest in 2014 to guide virtually all activity in the forest for at least the next decade. 

Despite the extraordinary environmental, economic, and recreational role the GW plays in our region, the Forest Service was weighing whether to open these public lands to gas development and high-volume hydraulic fracturing—“fracking”— a risky form of drilling that entails injecting huge volumes of water and chemicals into the ground in order to extract natural gas from shale deposits. Fracking involves intensive industrialization of land, including drilling pads, containment ponds, storage tanks, roads and heavy truck traffic, and more. 

One of the country’s most popular national forests is absolutely the wrong place for gas drilling and fracking, so SELC and our local, regional, and national partners worked relentlessly to persuade the Forest Service to keep this area off-limits to fracking, as did local governments and communities surrounding the forest. We’re pleased to report the Forest Service agreed and made the forest unavailable for oil and gas leasing and drilling, except for a small portion already subject to gas lease or private rights, a decision that protects the existing uses and values of the special George Washington National Forest.

The Future of the Forest

Forest plans also may make recommendations for to Congress for the designation of additional, permanently protected Wilderness or other designated areas. SELC, Virginia Wilderness Committee, and other local organizations applauded the GW plan’s recommendations for the designation of 27,000 acres of new or expanded Wilderness areas and approximately 70,000 acres of scenic area in the landmark Shenandoah National Scenic Area. We and our partners will continue to work with the Forest Service, local citizens and communities, and other stakeholders with diverse interests towards the designation of these areas.

As the Forest Service implements the new forest plan, SELC and our partners will continue to press for the protection of clean water, thriving fish and wildlife populations and ample, healthy habitat, old-growth forests, and prime recreation spots, including remote backcountry areas.

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