George Washington National Forest

The George Washington National Forest (GW) in western Virginia has been a favorite destination for generations of outdoor enthusiasts, from hikers and campers to hunters and fishermen. These public lands are also a haven for wildlife such as black bear, songbirds, native brook trout and many other species, and are the source of clean drinking water and economic benefit for dozens of communities.

The U.S. Forest Service is in the process of revising the long-term forest management plan for the GW.  Among other decisions, the plan will decide whether to make GW lands available for federal oil and gas leasing and drilling. 

The GW is about 1,065,000 acres in size, including about 960,000 acres in Virginia and about 105,000 acres in West Virginia.  The prior forest plan, adopted in 1993, made almost all of the GW (1,011,000 acres or about 95%) available for oil and gas leasing.  However, only about 12,000 acres (about 1%) of the forest currently are subject to federal oil and gas leases.  On the GW, the federal government owns about 84% of subsurface mineral rights (about 890,400 acres).  Only about 16% (about 170,400 acres) of the mineral rights to the GW are held by private parties, and those private mineral rights would not be affected by the revised forest plan’s decisions regarding the availability of federal mineral rights for leasing.

Although there never have been producing natural gas wells on the GW, the GW lies on the southeastern edge of the Marcellus Shale, which in other states in recent years has been heavily drilled using hydraulic fracturing (fracking).  About half of the GW is underlain by the Marcellus Shale, so citizens and conservation groups have raised serious concerns about the potential impacts of opening up the GW to shale gas drilling and fracking.  

In response, the Forest Service proposed, in the draft revised GW plan released in 2011, to prohibit horizontal drilling on any future federal oil and gas leases on the GW.  This is intended to prevent or limit high-volume hydraulic fracturing and would help protect rivers and streams that are direct sources of local drinking water for more than 260,000 people living in and around Virginia’s historic Shenandoah Valley.  Further, the GW is located in the watersheds of the Potomac and James Rivers, which supply drinking water to millions of citizens in Washington, D.C. and Richmond, Virginia, among other cities.  It would also protect other key national forest resources, such as important fish and wildlife habitat and outstanding recreation experiences for the more than 1 million people who visit the GW each year.

Of the approximately 53,000 comments submitted during the comment period on the draft plan, more than 95% supported the proposed restrictions on horizontal drilling, while less than 3% opposed them.  Consistent with this broad public support, 10 local governments in or around the GW and two public drinking water suppliers also submitted comments expressing concerns over fracking and supporting limits on fracking.  Unlike other regions with a history of oil or gas drilling or other extractive industries, there is very little history of oil and gas development in the Shenandoah Valley region. Therefore, most local leaders do not view gas drilling as a component of local economic growth and some have concerns about the impact of fracking on traditional economic sectors like agriculture and tourism, which are very important in this region.

Unfortunately, the Forest Service has said that it is reconsidering the proposal to prohibit horizontal drilling.  A final revised plan is expected to be released this year (2013).  Citizens are encouraged to write to the Secretary of Agriculture, who oversees the Forest Service, to urge the agency to stand by its original proposal to prohibit horizontal drilling on the GW and to improve that proposal in key respects regarding vertical drilling (click here to comment).

Under the draft plan’s proposal, about 93% of the GW would still be available for federal leasing for vertical drilling.  Given that about 90% of U.S. gas wells are fracked, such vertical drilling would, in all likelihood, also involve hydraulic fracturing and would pose risks to ground- and surface- water quality, fragment wildlife habitat, and disrupt recreation. The Forest Service should more thoroughly study, with full public participation, the potential impacts of vertical gas drilling on the GW before deciding to open the GW up to such drilling.  At a minimum, local drinking water supply watersheds, priority watersheds, and other sensitive natural, scenic and recreation areas should be unavailable to drilling.