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.

A New Plan for the National Forest

The George Washington National Forest (GW) is managed by the U.S. Forest Service, which is in the process of revising the long-term management plan for the forest. This plan, to be released likely in 2014, will 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 is currently weighing whether to open these public lands to horizontal gas drilling.

Prohibiting horizontal drilling in the GW would curb high-volume hydraulic fracturing— “fracking”—to extract natural gas from shale deposits under the forest. Fracking is a risky form of drilling that entails injecting huge volumes of water and chemicals into the ground in order to crack the shale and release natural gas trapped in its fissures. Fracking also involves intensive industrialization of land, to include drilling pads, containment ponds, storage tanks, roads and heavy truck traffic, and more. Such activity in the GW could impact public water supplies, the forest’s fish and wildlife habitat, and recreation treasures and experiences in the GW. One of the country’s most popular national forests is absolutely the wrong place for drilling and fracking. 

Among other important values, the GW is a direct source of local drinking water for over 329,000 people living in and around the Shenandoah Valley, and the forest is in the watershed of the James and Potomac Rivers, which supply drinking water to about 4.5 million people in cities further downstream, including Richmond, Virginia and the Washington, D.C. metro area.

We are also urging the Forest Service to further study, with public participation, the draft plan’s proposal to allow vertical drilling, because vertical wells are usually fracked and also could seriously impact water quality and other national forest values.  At a minimum, natural, scenic and recreational areas should be protected from any drilling.

Coalition Protects the Forest for the Future

SELC and our local, regional, and national partner groups are working to persuade the Forest Service to put stronger environmental protections in place for the GW. Our vision for the future of the GW includes clean water, thriving fish and wildlife populations and ample, healthy habitat, old-growth forests and prime recreation spots, including remote, wild backcountry areas.

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