Fracking the GW National Forest: Worth the risk?

November 21, 2014 · 3 minute read

Late last month, my 4-year-old son and I embarked on a now-annual journey to the George Washington National Forest. We were meeting friends not far from the West Virginia border for a fathers-and-their-first-born camping trip. There were eight of us: four dads and four kids (two boys, two girls). It was a cool but gorgeous October Saturday. The leaves were in absolute full-on, color-drenched fall splendor as we drove through Charlottesville, then over Afton Mountain, into the Shenandoah Valley and on past Staunton.

We arrived at the North River Campground in the afternoon, set up camp, got the fire roaring and generally did what you do when camping with 4-6 year olds. We threw the football around, played different versions of tag, caught up on each others lives and cracked a beer or two. That night we made s’mores, heaped more wood on the fire and settled in for a night of crappy sleep. Pretty standard, right?

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The earthen dam offers beautiful views of Todd Lake in the GWNF. Credit: Andy Thompson

The next day we went on a hike to a pristine mountain lake where the kids found dozens of salamanders crawling across the bottom. It was a blast, just as it was the year before.

My mind went immediately to that trip — those memories — earlier this week when the news came down that the national forest’s new 10-15-year management plan would allow for the controversial kind of energy drilling called fracking on 177,000 acres. The plan was described as a compromise: A 2011 draft of the forest plan would have basically banned fracking on the GW. So industry types were happy to have access to a sizable portion of the forest. But environmentalists also were relieved because that portion was pared down from a possible 995,000 acres to those 177,000.

Critics say fracking, injecting water and chemicals underground to break up rocks that hold oil and gas, can pollute streams and groundwater, not to mention damage the scenic value of the national forest. Industry representatives argue the drilling is done safely all over the country.

As Rex Springston reported in the Times-Dispatch: The George Washington lies on the southeastern fringe of the Marcellus Shale, a region rich in underground natural gas. But federal officials said that part of the shale region that lies in the George Washington is not particularly productive, and while some companies have acquired drilling rights, no one has drilled.

“Nothing has ever come together on the GW for gas,” said Ken Landraf, the forest’s planning officer.

But let’s be honest, while the math may not make sense now, it will eventually. As the more productive sections of the Marcellus Shale go dry, those companies with mineral and drilling rights will start looking hungrily at the GW.


Elkhorn Lake in the GWNF. Credit: Panoramio

I’m not sure how much this issue is on the radar of many Richmonders, but it should be. The headwaters of the James River lies in the GW (and the Potomac, for that matter). I personally know people who travel regularly to the GW to hike, mountain bike, ride horses, bird watch and fish. On our camping trip last month, there was a huge group of Jeep drivers from the Hampton area who told us they regularly come to the forest to camp and pick up trash. They drive around all day picking up litter then come back to camp and have a good time.

I’m no pollyanna when it comes to issues like these. I get that we need fuel, fossil fuel, specifically, and that we will for a long time. I drive a car. I’m not blind to the nuances of this issue. But I couldn’t help thinking about my son and his friends running along the banks of that perfect mountain lake, with reds and oranges and yellows blazing on the hillsides above, pointing out with glee the salamanders they saw in the gin clear water. I saw fishermen in boats out there and trucks loaded with hunting gear in the gravel parking lot. I remembered the coyotes we heard the night before.

To risk all that, I thought, even if the risk is low, isn’t worth the reward.