Opinion: The Fate of the George Washington National Forest

Environmental Commentary by Chris Bolgiano

“This is the heart of why I work for Wilderness,” said Lynn Cameron, a retired university librarian and volunteer for the grass-roots conservation group, Virginia Wilderness Committee. We were on top of the world, or close to it, at the historic High Knob Fire Tower on 4,100-foot-high Shenandoah Mountain, along the Virginia/West Virginia border.

Rolling away below us in wave after wave of blue mountains was the 1.1 million acres of the George Washington National Forest (GWNF). If you live almost anywhere in the mid-Atlantic region, you have a stake in what happens in the GWNF. Depending on where you live, your life may depend on it.

Down the shadowed troughs between those waves of mountains run innumerable creeks that converge in the lowlands to form the James and Potomac rivers. Several hundred thousand people in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, and millions more if you follow the streams into the District of Columbia and Richmond, drink from these waters.

Water quality is not what Cameron meant, though. Nor were the other ecosystem benefits, like clean air, carbon sequestration, wildlife habitat and the multimillion-dollar outdoor recreation industry that Shenandoah Mountain supports.

Although she has spent years giving presentations about the many values of Shenandoah Mountain, Cameron was at the moment simply overwhelmed by its beauty.

Yet beneath the scenic surface lies potential disaster. “Most of the GWNF,” she said, “lies over Marcellus Shale. The threat of fracking for shale gas here has really awakened people to the idea of protecting this area from that kind of extractive use.”

Fracking is an intensely industrial process that uses horizontal as well as vertical drilling, and forces water and chemicals down to crack the shale and allow gas to escape. It is associated with water pollution, toxic air emissions, methane leaks, new roads and pipelines, heavy truck traffic, accidents, spills, explosions and large, transient work crews.

To prevent all of this on Shenandoah Mountain, Cameron and a coalition she helped establish, Friends of Shenandoah Mountain, have proposed a National Scenic Area to cover 90,000 acres and include four Wilderness Areas. (See the map at www.friendsofshenandoahmountain.org/.)

National Scenic and Wilderness Area designations require Congress to pass a bill defining specific places on federal lands. Most forms of land disturbance are prohibited while still allowing hunting, fishing, camping, hiking and other outdoor activities. Hundreds of businesses and organizations have endorsed the Shenandoah Mountain Proposal, and it’s not too late for you, too, to support the effort.

Like all national forests, the GWNF is managed according to a plan that is updated about every decade, and Cameron said she is waiting to see if the administration will recommend naming the mountain a scenic and wilderness area.

The GWNF’s plan is years overdue, Cameron said, because of pressure from the gas industry. In the first draft of the plan update, the Forest Service banned horizontal drilling.

An overwhelming majority of 53,000 public comments supported the ban, including virtually all local governments, Virginia senators Warner and Kaine, state and county agencies, and water quality managers.

The Virginia Oil and Gas Association opposed the ban. “[Fracking] can be done with minimal impact to the environment,” wrote Greg Kozera, its president, in his comments. “New technology has allowed the natural gas industry to drill even longer horizontal laterals…one horizontal well can now replace 10 or more vertical wells. This means even less disturbance … in the forest.”

The promise of greater drilling efficiency has not changed Cameron’s opinion; it fact, she says it illustrates the need for permanent protection instead of relying on a plan that changes every decade. “New technology will always be tempting,” she said. “Back in the early 1900s, they thought steam-powered logging equipment was the best thing since sliced bread, and look what happened to the mountains then.”

High Knob Fire Tower itself reflects that time. Like the six other Southern Appalachian national forests, the GWNF was purchased and reforested by the federal government after private timber companies had logged the mountains nearly bare. Wildfires sparked by logging were burning everywhere, and putting them out was the first great mission of the U.S. Forest Service.

“The forest is still recovering,” Cameron was saying as I carefully followed her down the steps to solid ground. “The areas we have recommended are some of the least disturbed, most natural places left in Virginia. They are a scientific control group and an ecological treasure trove. But what matters just as much to me personally,” she said, watching a raven floating on the wind, “is the kind of solitude and connection with nature that they alone can offer.”

Chris Bolgiano has written six books about wilderness. Distributed by Bay Journal News Service.

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