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.