Monongahela National Forest Case Study:
The Monongahela National Forest covers almost one million acres in the highest mountains of West Virginia. Seven National Natural Landmarks are within its proclamation boundary and it is home to many rare and endangered species including the Indiana bat, Virginia big eared bat, the Cheat mountain salamander, West Virginia northern flying squirrel, running buffalo clover and the snowshoe hare. The World Wildlife Fund named the unique boreal ecosystem and mixed mesophytic forests of the Monongahela a species diversity hotspot. The Forest is also the location of at least 17 historic sites ranging from French and Indian War forts, Civil War battlefields, railroads of the early Industrial era to WPA (Works Progress Administration) picnic shelters and cabins form the 1930’s. The extensive outdoor recreation opportunities for hiking, biking, camping, bird watching, hunting, fishing, kayaking, canoeing and rock climbing make it a destination for folks through the region.
Underlying the Monongahela are extensive gas deposits. The publicly owned gas makes up 62% or 571,113 acres under the forest while the gas in private ownership makes up 38% or 350,037 acres below the forest surface. The Mononongahela also has a gas storage area under the forest called the Glady Field. Natural gas is piped to this area in the summer for use in the northeast in the winter. The 2006 Forest Plan estimated that 74 percent of the federally owned natural gas is considered available for exploration, development, and production (Final Environmental Impact Statement for Forest Plan Revision, September 2006, page 3375).
From 2008 to 2010 large areas of the Monongahela (Mon) were proposed for gas lease sales. All these proposed parcels were withdrawn from the Eastern States lease auction after extensive protests. The first was for a Wilderness study area called Roaring Plains and was withdrawn for that reason. The second was for Brushy Run, a native trout stream near a karst area that houses endangered bats. It was also very close to Seneca Rocks, a popular tourist attraction and rock climbing area. The Endangered Species issues influenced this withdrawal by the Forest Service. The third proposal was for two different locations in one sale. All parcels were on the border of the Spruce Knob National Recreation Area, a protected area which would have been impacted. They also contained endangered bats, the West Virginia northern flying squirrel, trout streams. The protest letter covering this lease sale in Randolph and Pendleton Counties was signed by nine groups including the Wilderness Society and the Center for Biological Diversity.
Because the Monongahela is located in the Marcellus gas play which could lead to major disturbance of the rare ecosystems and high mountain streams here, West Virginia forest advocates keep a close eye on the lease sale list for the Mon. Although the Mon has written a RONI (record of new information) on Marcellus Shale drilling they have not updated the Forest Plan to protect this special place from its dangerous effects. They do not review the lease sale parcels through a NEPA process so public cannot comment on these proposals before the lease sale list is posted on the BLM (Bureau of Land Management) website.
Conventional drilling can have bad consequences as well, as we learn from the Fernow fiasco on the Mon near Blackwater Canyon. The Fernow Experimental Forest was the site of a private gas well drilled and redrilled by Berry Energy. Scientists at the Fernow objected to the disturbance which undermined their research but were over ruled. The drilling went through an endangered bat cave, created erosion on roadways and waste water from the drilling was land applied killing trees and shrubs. A waste pit near the site leaked. Click here to see pictures, a Forest Service Report and internal documents. PEER (Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility) represented the forest service scientists and got the story out to national media.