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George Washington National Forest Plan Delayed, Again

Biking in the GWBiker on a ridge in the George Washington National Forest

Officials at the Forest Service have again delayed release of the final management plan for George Washington National Forest (GW), which will dictate forest uses for the next 10-15 years.

Local communities and forest advocates across the country are awaiting the decision, as the plan will either stick with the Forest Service’s original proposal to ban controversial horizontal gas drilling (fracking) or open the forest up to industrial scale gas development.

With no history of oil and gas development and a strong reliance on traditional economic sectors like farming, tourism and outdoor recreation, local communities in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley are not divided on the issue. Ten local governments adjacent to the forest have endorsed the GW’s proposal to limit fracking on the GW. Bipartisan support includes conservative counties like Augusta, Rockingham, and Shenandoah and their more progressive counterparts in cities like Roanoke and Harrisonburg. This summer, Virginia’s U.S. Senators Mark Warner and Tim Kaine wrote to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, asking him to heed local government priorities for the forest.

Still, it appears lobbyists for the oil and gas industry are pushing federal officials to ignore requests from local communities and citizens across the country to keep fracking out of the George Washington National Forest.

The George Washington National Forest is a lot of different things to a lot of different people. For 260,000 residents of Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, it is a direct source of water for drinking and agriculture. For the 10 million people that live within a 2-hour drive, it is an ideal spot for backpacking, hiking, hunting and fishing. For the more than 4.5 million people in Washington DC and Richmond, it is the headwaters of the Potomac and James Rivers that provide the cities’ municipal water.

Just this month, the Richmond Times-Dispatch editorial page declared that “the George Washington Natural Forest … is not just any old lump of real estate. It is a treasure that merits close guarding.” In June, the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot editorialized that the forest “is one of a very few remote places left on the East Coast. It would be a mistake to turn it into another industrial site...”

No matter where you stand on fracking, there are simply some places that ought to be off-limits. By any measure, the George Washington National Forest is one of those. It’s not too late to voice your support for protection of the largest national forest in the East.

--  by Kate G. Wofford, Executive Director of the Shenandoah Valley Network in Luray, VA. The Shendoah Valley Network works to maintain healthy and productive rural landscapes and communities, to protect and restore natural resources, and to strengthen and sustain the region’s agricultural economy.

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