We’re entering the best month of the year. Days are shorter, mornings cooler. It’s a month to enjoy our agricultural and recreational treasures — hiking Blue Ridge trails, leaf peeping on Skyline Drive, canoeing on the Shenandoah.
But those of us watching developments just over the mountains await a decision this month potentially impacting the region’s watersheds, millions of downstream neighbors and one of the East’s greatest natural treasures — George Washington National Forest.
Soon enough, the U.S. Forest Service will decide if the management plan it’s rewritten for the GWNF’s next 15 years will ban or allow drilling for natural gas via hydraulic fracturing, best known as fracking.
To steal a line from folks in a similar pickle: Let it be.
The stakes are high. At risk is the water supply for nearly five million residents served by the James, Potomac and Shenandoah rivers, each with its headwaters high up in the GWNF. Given that what’s proposed is the riskiest form of fracking, according to the Southern Environmental Law Center, anything less than a full ban is simply wrong.
Fracking is a divisive topic in our divided America. The industry touts fracked natural gas as better than coal, a domestic source of bridge energy, a generator of jobs. Concerned citizens cite fracking’s use of cancer-causing chemicals, the documented toxic spills into rivers and creeks, the industrialization it visits upon the terrain.
Funny story: I began writing a novel two years ago set here in Rappahannock County. What if fracking came here, like the kind you’ve read about north of us in Pennsylvania? What if we faced the same trade-offs? Oh, and earthquakes. With fracking comes earthquakes. Ask Ohio and Oklahoma.
“Mother Fracker,” it’s called. It’s fiction. A cautionary tale. It’ll never happen. When I began, fracking wasn’t an issue throughout much of Virginia; only Rockingham County over in the Shenandoah had been presented with the prospect. County supervisors there, having seen what happened to Pennsylvania, have tabled the topic.
The debate rages elsewhere. We’ve been largely spared.
But the Forest Service’s pending decision brings fracking to our doorstep. At the 11th hour, the oil and gas industry wants that plan to ease up on fracking.
You can see for yourself how close all this is the next time you traverse Skyline Drive. Head south from Thornton Gap and pull over at the Jewel Hollow overlook. Down below is Massanutten Mountain, anchoring the southern boundary of the GWNF’s Lee Ranger District, a 188,000-acre parcel used by hikers and boaters and campers. It’s but a tenth of the whole national forest, but it’s so close, I swear Bryce Harper could stand atop Stony Man and hurl a rock into one of its fresh-running streams.
Just because we in Rappahannock are part of a different watershed doesn’t mean we’re out of the woods. Fracking brings traffic via thousands of tanker trips per well, flare pipes venting methane into the atmosphere and pipelines connected to refineries. In a recent New York Times op ed, Cornell professor Anthony R. Ingraffea, a former oil and gas insider, cites industry studies that show five percent of all oil and gas wells leak immediately, with rising leakage rates over time. Is that a risk we’re willing to run in this national forest?
There’s one overriding argument against opening the door to drilling in the George Washington; it comes from the Forest Service itself. While national parks and federal lands were created for their own excellent purposes, the Weeks Act of 1911 set up our eastern national forests “for the purpose of conserving the forests and the water supply of the States” and “for the protection of the watershed of navigable streams.”
Deal killer. Case closed. Let it be — the motto of the Thompson Divide Coalition in western Colorado, battling to keep the fracking industry focused elsewhere.
I’m on the Rappahannock League for Environmental Protection board, and we’ve added our voice in support of the forest’s prohibition on fracking. We join the EPA; the Shenandoah Valley Network; two key water suppliers to Washington, D.C., and northern Virginia; 10 local governments; 88 diverse organizations and more than 54,000 members of the public. You can add your voice to keep fracking out of our national forest by contacting Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This is our land. Perish the thought of industrializing this natural gem with fracking towers and containment ponds. If you must drill, go someplace else where we, the people, aren’t the owners. Better yet, invest in alternative sources of energy.
Let us be.
Larry “Bud” Meyer lives on Long Mountain Road. He is a board member of RLEP. His first novel, “Mother Fracker” (motherfrackerbook.com), will be published the first week of October by Morningside Press.