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Proposals for National Forest draw questions

VERONA – The U.S. Forest Service on Tuesday night outlined the six proposals for management of George Washington National Forest that have divided conservationists, industry, localities and the public.

The forest service is scheduled to decide on a comprehensive plan of action for the 1-million-acre forest in the next year. Because such plans only are revised every 10 to 15 years, comments have poured into the agency and questions still abounded from the crowd of more than 80 that turned out at the Augusta County Government Center in Verona.

Issues include management of drinking water that flows into the homes of more than 260,000 residents in about a dozen counties, road access into the forest, the future of timber harvesting, gas and oil drilling and wind energy development and the health of forest wildlife.

Attendees overwhelmingly wanted to talk about hydrofracking, or hydraulic fracturing, a process in which fractures in bedrock are expanded, allowing more water to flow in wells and driving up drilling production.

Paula Putman, of north Rockingham County, called the practice “criminal” and said she wants the forest service to more actively regulate or bar the practice in its new plan. She called the meeting “one of our few chances to really voice what we think.”

The topic arose in discussion sessions, where attendees also addressed logging, endangered species and climate change.

Comments may still be sent to the forest service. The agency’s selection from among six alternatives should be made public in January, said Ken Landgraf, forest service planning staff officer. Final adoption of the plan is still months away.

A 13-page summary, available here, details the six alternatives described Tuesday.

The proposals in brief:

• Option A is a “no action” alternative that would continue the 1993 Forest Plan. That plan allows five to eight miles of new roads per year, establishes a 66-foot streamside buffer, allows for trail development and permits timber harvesting on 3,000 acres each year, gas and oil leasing on 960,000 acres but no hydrofracking.

• Option B permits no net increase in road miles, increases stream buffers, does not expand recreational acres, adds roadless acres and allows hydrofracking.

• Option C accomplishes restoration and maintenance through a “natural process with a lower level of human intervention.” The option includes “extensive” road closure (the most of any alternative), increases streamside buffers, permits more non-motorized trails, expands wilderness by 380,000 acres (the most of any option) and bars commercial timber harvests, oil and gas leasing and wind energy development.

• Option D allows for more commercial use as an economic benefit to local communities. The option increases trails, expands a low level of wilderness (about 14,000 acres), permits more timber harvesting, allows a “high potential” for wind development and hydrofracking.

• Option E would pair restoration efforts with recreation, increase a moderate level of wilderness, increase timber harvesting to meet ecological restoration objectives, aggressively treat non-native invasive species, bar wind development and decrease oil and gas drilling.

• Option F emphasizes recreation and scenery management. More roads would be decommissioned. Trails and wilderness acreage would increase. Timber harvesting would decrease, with some wind development and oil and gas drilling permitted.

In July, the forest service summarized mixed public commentary.

For road management, some want roads closed and destroyed to protect wilderness and water quality while others want to maintain hunting, recreation and firefighting access.

Wild Virginia, a Charlottesville-based conservation group, has made expanded wilderness and perpetuation of roadless areas their rallying points.

The forest has more than 240,000 acres of roadless area, the highest concentration in the east, said David Hannah with Wild Virginia. He said Tuesday that roadless areas are not adequately addressed in the plans.

The national forest provides drinking water to about 260,000 residents in 22 localities, many that have passed resolutions urging the forest service to increase water protection.

About 20,000 residents in Augusta County and Staunton get their water from the forest.

Augusta County’s resolution demanded better assessment of water and listed timber harvesting and road construction as threats to water on the heels of a Wild Virginia report that raised concerns.

Hannah said the forest service is moving in the right direction on water but specific details will matter.

The role of humans in managing plant life and animals remains a question. Concerns about invasive species have grown since the last forest plan, according to the public comments.