By Seth Coffman
By September, we should learn if federal officials will protect the integrity of the George Washington National Forest or if they will open the forest to industrial development for natural gas. That's when the U.S. Forest Service says it will release a final management plan to guide land uses on the forest's 1.1 million acres for the next 15 to 20 years.
The forest plan is of tremendous local importance, as nearly one quarter of the land in Shenandoah County lies within the George Washington National Forest. None of our county's guiding documents in which we take such pride - our comprehensive land use vision and plan, rural and residential zoning ordinances, new economic development strategy - apply to public lands. Yet our county will be forced to manage the impacts of shale gas development that inevitably spill onto private lands - the nearly 1,000 tanker trucks on rural roads needed to drill (frack) a single shale well, the wastewater holding ponds, the extensive sound and light pollution from around the clock drilling, noisy compressor stations, industrial staging yards and pipelines that will transport natural gas to markets far outside our borders.
Shenandoah County will join hard-hit communities in West Virginia and Pennsylvania in the struggle to absorb the high cost of public services needed to cope with the gas industry's impacts on transportation, emergency services, police and the court system, public health and affordable housing. In the absence of adequate federal and state oversight, we run the risk of contaminating our drinking water and degrading our air quality.
We will do all this for industrial energy extraction, an industry that is totally incompatible with the economic sectors on which our vision of future prosperity and quality of life is based - agriculture, tourism, recreation, local manufacturing and entrepreneurship.
At this point, as the oil and gas industry presses federal officials to open up the forest to shale gas drilling, we can only hope that top Forest Service and U.S. Department of Agriculture officials listen to local opposition. The Forest Service's proposal to ban horizontal drilling in the George Washington National Forest was endorsed by 11 local governments, including Shenandoah County, and supported by more than 95 percent of the nearly 60,000 public comments received on the draft management plan in 2011.
The George Washington National Forest is a public treasure, one of the very few remote places on the East Coast, drawing more than a million visitors a year. It has always been managed to support recreation and natural resources, drinking water supplies and forest products.
In Shenandoah County, the forest supplies drinking water to 8,452 Strasburg and Woodstock residents, offers 32 miles of trout streams, 178 miles of hiking or riding trails and seven outstanding recreation sites like Signal Knob and Elizabeth Furnace, and is home to six special biological areas like the Peter's Mill Run Bog and vast tracts of roadless areas like Big Schloss and Northern Massanutten.
These are proven commodities with intrinsic and economic value. Risking these special resources and the economic sectors they support for speculative industrial energy development is not in the best interest of the Shenandoah County citizens.
A recent editorial in Norfolk's Virginian-Pilot clearly outlined the choice facing federal officials: "A national forest is not an industrial site. There are plenty of other more promising places to frack in the Marcellus formation without despoiling the playground and refuge for millions of Americans."
And without bringing heavy industry to the rural lands Shenandoah County has worked so hard to preserve.
Seth Coffman is chairman of the Shenandoah Forum, a nonprofit group that encourages active and informed participation by county residents on important community issues. Visit the Forum at www.ShenandoahForum.org.