Forest Service Reveals New Plan
District Ranger Pat Sheridan and Ken Landgraf of the U.S. Forest Service were in attendance at the Highland Board of Supervisors November work session to report on the newly signed forest plan for the George Washington National Forest. These plans are typically released every 15 to 20 years. This latest edition has a number of broad changes, including increases in riparian buffers, the number of acres harvested for timbering, and prescribed burning areas. The plan also includes recommendations for expansion of wilderness and creation of a national scenic area on the Shenandoah Mountain, between Routes 250 and 33.
While these all have implications for the 58,000 acres of the forest in Highland County, the main topic of interest was the potential for mineral rights exploration on national forest land. Mr Landgraf explained.
“Since 1993, just about the entire forest has been open for gas leasing. During that time, those last 21 years, there’s been very little interest – only 10,000 acres were leased – and what we’ve decided is that there has been no interest in developing gas, yet we have a lot of concern from a lot of the local communities, a lot of the local boards have told us that they were very concerned, particularly about hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling. So we’re not making any of the forest available for gas leasing, for this planning horizon.”
“There is one exception to that, is that we do have the 10,000 acres that are already under lease, and we would not affect those leases because they are already in the lessee’s hands. Those 10,000 acres are almost all in Highland County. You’ve got Laurel Fork up here in the west, and the block of land south of Laurel Fork is where one of those blocks is. The other block is pretty much over on Shaw’s Ridge, on the eastern side of the county.”
“They were leased in 2008 – the lease extends for 10 years. If at the end of 10 years, the company that has those leases doesn’t develop them, the lease returns to the federal governments.”
In addition to the previously leased areas, there are about 170,000 acres in the forest, with roughly 10,000 acres in Highland, where mineral rights are privately held.
“Part of the forest, we don’t own the mineral rights to. When we purchased those lands, the people that sold us it either retained the rights to the minerals, or they didn’t own the rights. So on that 170,000 that are owned by private mineral owners, the private mineral owner can develop those minerals when and if they want to do that.”
Mr. Landgraf also noted that exploration is possible, but unlikely.
“We’re on the southwestern fringe of that marcellus shale formation that is being tapped in Pennsylvania and West Virginia, so, we don’t even know if there’s anything out here worth going after, and right now it doesn’t seem that anybody’s too interested in it.”
Mr. Sheridan underscored that there was an involved process before any drilling could occur.
“If you have a lease, that doesn’t mean that you can call us up or write a letter and say you’re coming in to drill for gas. First of all, they would have to notify that they have an intention to want to develop it, and then we go through this entire process of doing environmental impact statement, and making a decision, and public involvement, even to approve a request to drill. The first thing we’d probably see would be a request for seismic monitoring, seismic sampling. Following that, they would put a permit in for one well, or two wells, like test wells rather than a full field development. So it’s a very staged process, if they ever got that far.”
Mr. Landgraf ended the presentation with a note on similar activities within the forest.
“When we started the plan, what got us very interested in this, there was a proposal in Rockingham County to do an exploration well, and a lot of,people, they were very concerned. The company walked away from those leases, and is letting them lapse, because they have just decided it isn’t worth it. They also were drilling some over at Hardy County, and my understanding from the newspapers is that they’re walking away from those as well. It just doesn’t appear that there’s much economical benefit in drilling in this part of the state.”