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George Washington National Forest Plan Would Ban Horizontal Drilling

A new draft management plan for the 1.1-million-acre George Washington National Forest (GWNF) in the Appalachian Mountains of Virginia, West Virginia and Kentucky would allow gas leasing on one million acres but prohibit horizontal drilling on all federal leases.

The plan, which was released Wednesday for public comment, proposes new rules for the next 15 years for the George Washington Forest, which, with the connecting 700,000-acre Jefferson National Forest, makes up one of the largest areas of public land in the eastern United States. The GWNF land mass, which includes portions of the Marcellus Shale, runs north-south with most of the forest lying on the Virginia side of the Virginia-West Virginia border.

Ken Landgraf, planning staff officer, said that although the southern end of the Marcellus Shale runs under about half of the George Washington Forest, there has been no interest expressed in drilling there. "It's questionable how developable the Marcellus is down here because it's fractured and faulted, which it isn't in other places. So we think potential is lower than it is in other places and we've not had any interest."

About 12,000 acres in the GWNF are under lease but not active. "There was some exploratory drilling in places in the forest about 20- 25 years ago, but nothing was commercially produceable," Landgraf said.

The only area with active natural gas drilling is in the far southwest corner of Virginia in the Jefferson Forest. The production there is in more traditional deposits with no horizontal drilling. A management plan completed for the Jefferson Forest in 2004 includes no restrictions on horizontal drilling.

Besides the prohibition on horizontal drilling, the GWNF plan includes other rules and restrictions on development of underground wells. It also would allow consideration of wind energy development, but it prohibits it on 450,000 acres of identified sensitive areas. Unlike National Parks and Wilderness areas, some commercial development is allowed in national forests.

Landgraf said for about 16% of the GWNF the government owns the surface rights, but not the mineral rights.

The plan is the result of a collaboration among national forest managers, partner agencies such as the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, conservation organizations, and members of the public over the past two years. Draft documents are available at www.fs.fed.us/r8/gwj. The forest is currently operating under a management plan completed in 1993.

The Forest Service is scheduling public workshops in June and July where GWNF staff can answer questions about the draft documents and stakeholders may seek ways to modify the draft plan. Three workshops have been scheduled and three more are planned. Written or electronic comments will be accepted for 90 days and can be emailed to: comments-southern-georgewashington-jefferson@fs.fed.us.

The plan also includes a recommendation for one new wilderness study area, while three other areas are recommended as additions to existing wilderness areas. Total proposed new areas for wilderness designation are 20,000 acres. These are areas to be preserved in a natural state with no commercial uses.

The Forest Service said the plan attempts to address the "many challenges relating to the development of surrounding lands and increasing demands for the multiple uses of the GWNF.

"The proposed plan lays the foundation to address the ecological and social needs of forest stakeholders while continuing the legacy of cooperatively protecting water and restoring forests that began a century ago with the Weeks Act. Management direction in the proposed plan addresses needs to supply clean water, restore and maintain ecosystems, ensure forests are resilient to the stresses from climate change and urbanization, provide financially and ecologically sustainable access to the Forest, offer a diversity of recreation opportunities including remote settings, address energy development opportunities and utilize best available science."

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