George Washington National Forest

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Forest Service Protects George Washington National Forest from gas drilling and fracking More »

After years of hard work, SELC’s forest team reached a major milestone in mid-November when the U.S. Forest Service announced its long-anticipated management plan for the George Washington National Forest. The forest is now off-limits to gas drilling of any kind—including “fracking”—except for a small portion subject to pre-existing private gas rights.

The decision will protect the vast majority of this 1.1 million-acre national forest, which is essential for water supplies, recreation, and fish and wildlife habitat, and is central to the quality of life in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley and surrounding mountains.

Uniting local voices to preserve a special place

The Forest Service’s plan reflects the clear, unified voices of the local communities, local governments, Virginia’s Governor and U.S. Senators, other officials around the region, many conservation groups, and tens of thousands of public comments—over 75,000 individuals weighed in to help preserve the essential nature of the forest.

Much was at stake. The George Washington contributes to $13.6 billion in consumer spending and 138,000 jobs created by outdoor recreation in Virginia. Its rivers and streams are a source of local drinking water for over 329,000 people and ultimately contribute to the water supply of some 4.5 million others downstream.

In addition to the forest itself, the decision will help protect the adjacent farms and rural communities from the industrial impacts of gas drilling. Farming is Virginia’s largest industry, and the GW region accounts for more than two-thirds of its value.

SELC and our partners at the Shenandoah Valley Network had a critical role in highlighting these local concerns and persistently keeping the focus on the need to protect this special forest during the years that the Forest Service deliberated.

Confusion follows announcement

Ironically, headlines in several media outlets led to confusion immediately following the plan’s release. But as SELC legal and policy experts began reviewing the details of the plan during the predawn hours, it became clear the Forest Service had actually committed to keeping the George Washington as free from industrial gas drilling as possible.

The agency took a different approach than many had anticipated. Three years ago, when the Forest Service released a draft of the plan, it proposed banning horizontal drilling, which effectively would have prevented shale gas drilling and high-volume hydraulic fracturing or “fracking.” When the gas industry protested the ban on a specific drilling method, the agency agreed to reconsider its proposal, leaving many concerned.

In the end, however, the Forest Service focused on the more fundamental question of whether to open the GW lands it controls to gas development. The answer was no.

There has never been any gas drilling in the George Washington National Forest. SELC is proud to be a part of a group of so many committed to the character of this forest and the surrounding Shenandoah Valley who came together to keep it that way. Thank you to the supporters, friends, and the conservation and community groups we work with who made this possible.

Read the press release here.

Listen to the press call here.

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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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