Private landowners in Ohio's Wayne National Forest are growing increasingly restive with the federal government's four-year effort to lease parts of the forest for shale drilling, with two mineral rights organizations recently criticizing ongoing delays and urging a variety of stakeholders to file public comments.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management last month released a draft environmental assessment (EA) with an unsigned finding of no significant impact for drilling on about 18,000 acres in the forest's Marietta Unit, located in Monroe, Noble and Washington counties. The EA and finding of no significant impact helps to advance development on the acreage, but the BLM has put the documents out for public comment until May 29, rankling supporters of the leasing proposal.

"The BLM was absolutely correct to determine that there will be no environmental impact from leasing in the Wayne and we applaud their decision," said Becky Clutter, founder of the Landowners for Energy Access and Safe Exploration (LEASE). "Yet, should the agency take no further action, landowners' private property rights would continue to be squandered. We are asking that all landowner continue to speak up and make your voices heard. The BLM is mandated by law to make these minerals available for development and they need to do so immediately with no further delays."

For months now, LEASE said it has been relaying the views of elected leaders, businesses, labor unions and hundreds of landowners that support drilling in the forest to the BLM. The Appalachian chapter of the National Association of Royalty Owners (NARO), which represents royalty owners in Ohio, West Virginia, Kentucky and North Carolina, recently launched a "call to action" campaign urging supporters of leasing land in the forest to speak up in favor of the proposal.

"While we agree with the proposed action to lease federal minerals in the Wayne, and the finding of no significant impact in the environmental assessment, we also believe that the agency is still not addressing the fact that the majority of the acres under the Wayne are privately owned, and the federal government should not impede or delay private minerals under the forest and adjacent to the forest from development," said Appalachia NARO President Bob Hart.

The BLM said last year that it was considering leasing about 18,000 acres that the oil and gas industry had nominated for development in the forest (see Shale DailyNov. 17, 2015). The decision came more than three years after the BLM signed a supplemental information report that said an in-depth study it conducted proved that there was no need to amend the forest's 2006 land and resource management plan or supplement its environmental impact statement to address the possible surface impacts from unconventional drilling (see Shale DailyAug. 28, 2012).

Instead, the BLM said it would begin conducting EAs to consider whether to lease more parcels in the forest. The draft EA that is currently out for comment analyzed about 40,000 acres, which includes the 18,000 that is being considered for leasing. The agency said the industry has submitted more than 50 expressions of interest for that acreage.

Since the forest started land purchases in 1935, 244,242 acres have been acquired. About 41% of the mineral rights across that acreage are owned by the federal government. As of last year, there were 1,275 active vertical wells in the forest, 493 of them located on federal land.

Noble, Monroe and Washington counties have seen heavy Utica Shale development on mostly private land. According to state records, 460 horizontal permits have been issued to drill across all three counties.

The BLM has said it is working as expeditiously as possible, electing to conduct an EA for the entire Marietta Unit to streamline the leasing process, rather than conducting an analysis on a lease-by-lease basis. Ultimately, the agency has identified more than 68,000 acres that it could potentially lease for resource development in the forest.

Environmental advocacy groups, including the Sierra Club and the Buckeye Forest Council, have challenged the leasing proposal and called for a full-scale environmental report before any decision is made to take bids from oil and gas companies.