by LAURA BELLEVILLE | Belleville is the director of conservation for the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. She is based in Blacksburg. Published in the Roanoke Times.
As the director of conservation for the Appalachian Trail Conservancy and active board member of the American Hiking Society, I wanted to offer another point relevant to the Point/Counterpoint discussion “Should fracking for natural gas be allowed in the George Washington National Forest?” (Aug. 11 and 18).
I would like to highlight the important economic impact of outdoor recreation and the challenges we face when extractive uses conflict with recreational pursuits. As background, a recent 2012 Outdoor Industry Association report concluded that nationally, outdoor recreation pursuits generate 6.1 million American jobs, $646 billion in outdoor recreation spending each year, $39.9 billion in federal tax revenue and $39.7 billion in state and local tax revenue.
These data are particularly relevant to public lands near major metropolitan areas, as they tell a story of sustainable economic development opportunities for neighboring rural communities. More than 9.2 million people live within a couple hours’ drive of the George Washington National Forest. Public lands like the GW are readily accessible to urban populations, and rural communities provide much-needed services to these visitors.
The 2,181-mile Appalachian Trail traverses the George Washington National Forest with 8,500 acres of trail corridor lands in this forest. The AT, a national and international iconic scenic trail, attracts visitors from heavily populated areas along the East Coast, as well as visitors from around the country and the world. The AT represents one valuable recreational resource among many on the George Washington National Forest — in total the GW has more than 1,000 miles of trails designated for non-motorized recreation. While there may be opportunities to balance extractive uses in this national forest with recreational uses, horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing (fracking) is an incompatible use on this forest for the following reasons.
Notably, there is much concern about water contamination associated with horizontal drilling. The George Washington National Forest hosts the headwaters of rivers that supply drinking water to local communities and ultimately lead to the Chesapeake Bay. On a smaller scale, but nonetheless important, backpackers drink water from open sources, and contamination (real or perceived) of water along recreational trails such as the AT will deter visitors from recreating in the George Washington National Forest.
Perhaps a more significant concern from a recreation perspective is the construction that is required for horizontal drilling and fracking. Roads and infrastructure to support thousands of huge truck trips carrying water will be required, impacting scenic views and remote recreational experiences within the forests. Drilling also usually requires the construction of large retaining ponds to store the produced chemically laden water.
In recent years, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy has partnered with several communities near the trail to connect these communities to the international brand of the AT. Several communities, including Waynesboro, Nelson County, Buena Vista and Glasgow, enthusiastically partnered with my organization to promote their communities as important gateways to the trail and the George Washington National Forest. They have been eager to celebrate that connection in an attempt to draw new visitors to their communities.
These communities recognize that over the past 10 years only one sector has been on a consistent upward trend in Virginia; that is tourism. While tourism may not be the golden egg, it’s certainly worth considering when major development, such as gas drilling and fracking, is allowed. The long-term impact on other forest-related industries, including tourism, may be very significant. Were gas drilling and fracking permitted on George Washington National Forest and ensuing decline in visitation experienced, all the investments that have been made in building a brand for the region as an outdoor recreation destination will have been wasted. The outdoor branding opportunity will be dead.
The Appalachian Trail Conservancy fully supports the prohibition of horizontal drilling as presented in the proposed draft update of the George Washington National Forest Plan. We also thank our Virginia senators and congressional representatives who have recognized the significant trade-offs this industrial use will have on this forest. While gas extraction may be compatible in other areas, it is certainly not on this forest.