The U.S. Forest Service (USFS) has withdrawn more than 3,300 acres of public land in southeast Ohio from a federal oil and natural gas lease sale scheduled for Dec. 7, pending a study on the possible effects hydraulic fracturing (fracking) could have on the state’s only national forest.

Wayne National Forest Supervisor Anne Carey said the study could take up to six months to complete and the USFS would release the study’s findings to the public.

“Based on new information and increased public interest on natural gas exploration, especially deep horizontal drilling, the [USFS] will soon assemble a team of natural resource specialists to do further analysis,” Carey said. “This group will review the best scientific information available with regard to the surface effects of [fracking].”

Carey said researchers could also amend or revise a forest plan for the Wayne National Forest that was drafted in 2006.

“Conditions have changed since the 2006 forest plan was developed,” Carey said. “The technology used in the Utica and Marcellus shale formations needs to be studied to see if potential effects to the surface are significantly different than those identified in the [2006] forest plan.”

The 3,302 forested acres in question are on five parcels in Athens, Gallia and Perry counties. Wayne National Forest — which totals more than 250,000 acres — has nearly 1,300 oil and gas wells, most of them located in the Athens Ranger District-Marietta Unit, which is in Washington and Monroe counties.

Nathan Johnson, an attorney for the Buckeye Forest Council (BFC), told NGI’s Shale Daily the environmental group was pleased with the USFS’ decision to hold off on the auction.

“We consider it a victory for the environment and for residents of Athens, Perry and Gallia counties,” Johnson said. “We also think it was a very wise decision, given the fact that there hasn’t been any environmental analysis of the new shale development that is increasingly occurring in Ohio. We think it’s very important that a proper scientific, ecological and economic analysis be conducted.”

But Johnson said the BFC didn’t know if the parcels would eventually be auctioned anyway, and he conceded that the group was disappointed the USFS’ plan was not a formal environmental impact study (EIS) conducted under the auspices of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). He said the upcoming review would also not study possible groundwater impacts.

“The study that they’re going to do is sort of a preliminary study; we believe that ultimately they do have to go through the NEPA process,” Johnson said. “They’ve also explicitly said that they won’t be considering groundwater effects as part of this preliminary study, which we find somewhat puzzling given the fact that people are specifically concerned about groundwater.”

Johnson hinted that the BFC could file a lawsuit if the national forest land is eventually put up for auction. “If we’re disappointed with how the process plays out, we are certainly prepared to go to court if things really get to that point.”

Despite the withdrawal of the Ohio acreage, the U.S. Department of Interior’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) plans to go ahead with its auction, which will begin at 10 a.m. on Dec. 7 at the Eastern States office in Springfield, VA. The BLM will place 40 parcels totaling 17,647 acres — 16,761 acres in Mississippi, including land in the Bienville and Homochitto national forests, plus 886 acres in Louisiana’s Kisatchie National Forest — up for auction.