Allegheny National Forest
The Allegheny National Forest (ANF) is located in northwestern Pennsylvania and is the commonwealth’s only national forest. At 513,325 acres, the ANF is Pennsylvania’s only national forest and is located within a day’s drive of approximately 1/3 of the U.S. population. The ANF boasts the largest remnant of eastern old growth forest between the Adirondack and Smokey Mountains – the 4,100-acre Tionesta Scenic and Research Natural Areas. These forests and watersheds are important for the recovery of several endangered species, including the Indiana bat, northern riffleshell mussel, clubshell mussel, sheepnose mussel, rayed-bean mussel, small-whorled pogonia, and northeastern bulrush.
Unfortunately, the ANF is one of the most threatened national forests in the country because of the extremely high rate of oil and gas development. The federal government owns only 7% of the mineral rights underlying the ANF while private individuals or oil and gas companies own the other 93%. For decades, the Forest Service refused to conduct any environmental analysis under NEPA on private oil and gas drilling. According to the Forest Service, drillers accessing the federal surface to drill for privately owned oil and gas was not a “federal action” – and if there is no federal action, there is no duty to comply with NEPA.
In 2008, Allegheny Defense Project and two other organizations sued Forest Service for its failure to conduct a NEPA analysis before drilling commenced in the ANF. To our surprise, the Forest Service agreed to settle the case and committed to conduct NEPA analyses on future oil and gas drilling projects. A few months later, however, the oil and gas industry sued all of the parties to the settlement claiming the Forest Service has no authority to regulate any drilling operations in the ANF related to the extraction of private minerals.
Unfortunately, the federal courts so far have agreed with the oil and gas industry. In late 2009, the federal District Court in Erie issued a preliminary injunction that struck down our settlement agreement with the Forest Service. We appealed this decision but the Third Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the lower court’s decision. We are now at the merits stage of the litigation and are back in the Third Circuit on appeal after the District Court refused to consider any new arguments regarding the Forest Service’s authority to regulate private oil and gas drilling.
There are currently an estimated 12,000-15,000 oil and gas wells in the ANF. Approximately 4,000 miles of roads have been constructed to access those wells. None of this development was ever analyzed under NEPA and the public never had an opportunity to comment. Now, as the shale gas drilling boom spreads across Pennsylvania, the federal courts are saying that the Forest Service is essentially powerless to protect the ANF from drilling and fracking.
This is a major issue for eastern national forests, many of which have private minerals underlying the federal surface.