Home City The fight to end land leasing at Wayne National Forest

The fight to end land leasing at Wayne National Forest

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Ohio’s only national forest is at the center of a heated debate, garnering the attention of national and hyper-local environmental conservation and anti-fracking groups. 

At the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, Wayne National Forest sits on 833,900 acres across 12 Ohio counties, including Athens County. The land has historically been exploited for its rich natural resources like coal, iron minerals and now, natural gas.

Under two 20th-century acts — the Multiple-Use Sustained-Yield Act of 1960 and the Mineral Leasing Act of 1920 — Wayne is legally permitted to lease parcels of land for extracting minerals for a defined period of time through a competitive bidding process. 

The purpose of such sales is so citizens can benefit from mineral holdings and to encourage nonrenewable, domestic energy development, including hydraulic fracturing, a controversial method for extracting natural gas or oil from deep shale rock formations using highly pressured water, said Kelly Miller, Wayne public affairs specialist. 

Land leasing was dormant for decades until in 2011, when the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the U.S. Forest Service announced 3,000 acres of land were being auctioned off at Wayne. Following the announcement, members of environmental conservation organizations cited numerous concerns about how BLM executed the land leases.

They claimed that the BLM violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) by approving oil and gas leases without addressing risks to watersheds, public health and climate pollution. NEPA is a 1970 act that requires federal agencies to assess the environmental effects of proposed actions prior to making decisions regarding oil or gas extraction. 

“It’s problematic in our view to see federal agencies leasing out land for fracking development over parts of Wayne,” said Taylor McKinnon, senior public lands campaigner for the Center of Biological Diversity (CBD). “It will completely and forever change the character of that place.”

The CBD is an environmental protection nonprofit based in Arizona. CBD filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Forest Service and BLM to end land leasing in national forests, including in Wayne, arguing BLM relied on outdated plan proposals to approve the leases. 

The lawsuit is still ongoing and has since expanded to challenge another lease sale in March 2017 at Wayne. 

Following the lawsuit in 2018, a land auction at Wayne was canceled as a result of protests, as reported by The Athens News. While land has been successfully leased at Wayne, no drilling permits have been issued due to demonstrations. Miller confirmed that there are currently no active hydraulic fracking wells and no approved drilling permits through the BLM or the U.S. Forest Service at Wayne. 

In February of last year, the decision to rewrite a 2006 Wayne Forest land management plan was announced; the plan defined appropriate forest management guidelines. Environmental activists saw this as an opportunity to implement climate policies into the newly rewritten plan. 

As a result, the Athens County’s Future Action Network (ACFAN) formed the Ecological Force Management Climate Protection and Sustainable Economy as an identified working group of stakeholders to help revise the plan alongside Wayne employees. It was spearheaded by several Athens County environmentalists, including former Athens County commissioners Roxanne Groff and Heather Cantino —  a Buckeye Environmental Network board member — and steering committee members of ACFAN.

“Right now, the very least that we can hope for is that the Wayne revision team recognizes documents on evidence of climate impacts and health-related issues that we submitted as the important factor for them to continue and revise their policies,” Groff said. 

The forest plan revision process is expected to take about three years to complete. It will be accomplished in three general phases: assessment of current conditions and trends, plan development and implementation and monitoring. It is currently in the first phase — assessment. 

“We are not making any decisions; our goal is to bring public input and perceptions into this process at every stage to ensure a forest plan that works for land management, and works for the communities we serve,” Miller said.

Editor’s note: At the time of publication, the BLM had authorized eight applications for permits to drill federal oil and gas deposits at the Wayne National Forest. 

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