BLM’s plan to auction national forest land meets with storm of protest

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The Talladega National Forest in northeastern Alabama is among the most valuable natural areas in the state. Centrally located in the forest is Cheaha State Park, where Mt. Cheaha, the highest peak in Alabama, features scenic vistas of vast unbroken tracts of forestland. In the park is the trailhead of the Pinhoti Trail, a 107-mile trail that eventually connects with the National Park Service’s Appalachian Trail. The Chinnabee Silent trail in the park provides visitors close-up views of several beautiful waterfalls. Among the birds inhabiting the national forest is the red-cockaded woodpecker, a federally listed endangered species. The state park and surrounding areas in the national forest attracts around 100,000 visitors annually.

So it comes as no surprise that environmental groups and area residents were outraged when, just before the public notice ended in April, they learned of a plan by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to auction off 43,000 acres of the national forest to energy companies for the exploration and extraction of oil and/or gas.

The Natural Resources Defense Council and the Southern Environmental Law Center immediately lodged a formal protest expressing opposition to the plan. Wild South, Friends of the Talladega National Forest, and concerned citizens collected 7,000 signatures on a petition opposing sale or lease of national forest lands in Alabama.

It was pointed out that BLM does not apply the same environmental reviews and public comment procedures for lease or sale of public lands in the East as it does in the West. In the case of the latter, analyses of site-specific environmental consequences for parcels are conducted several months in advance of a proposed sale or lease and its findings are provided to the public for review and comments. In contrast, site-specific analyses for areas in the East are provided only after land is leased or sold.

Congressman Mike Rogers, R-Saks, within whose district T.N.F. is located, wrote BLM requesting that it delay implementing its plan and to schedule a public hearing on the matter prior to implementation. State Senator Roger Bedford, D-Russellville, wrote U.S. Department of Agriculture Sec. Tom Vilsack requesting his assistance in stopping the sale or lease of lands within the national forest, and sent copies to USDA Forest Service officials and to U.S. Senators Richard Shelby and Jeff Sessions, among others. Sen. Bedford is the State Senate’s Minority Leader.

Several newspapers have contained editorials opposing the plan. They include the Anniston Star, The Times Daily (Florence), The Cleburn News, The Decatur Daily, and The Locust Fork News-Journal. The Daily Home (Talladega) got precisely to the point when it editorialized, “Owners of the land – the public – seem to have been kept in the dark while BLM has proceeded with plans to offer leases in the Talladega National Forest for oil and gas exploration and extraction.”

Geologists are of the opinion that drilling in the Talladega national Forest would be difficult because of the thick layer of metamorphic rock that overlays the shale deposits. Also, the price of natural gas is now so low that extracting it from places like the T.N.F. would likely be prohibitively expensive. Dennis Latham, executive director of the Alabama Coalbed Methane Association, said, “I’d be very surprised if there are any bids.”

Meanwhile, BLM has decided to indefinitely postpone the auction, which was originally scheduled to be held on June 14. All things considered, I find it difficult not to believe that BLM will ultimately accede to the demands of Heflin Mayor Anna Berry and a host of others that Talladega National Forest be “taken off the table.”

Bob Mount is a Professor Emeritus with the Dept of Zoology and Entomology, Auburn Univ. He is also chairman of the Opelika Order of Geezers, well-known local think tank and political clearing house. He writes about birds, snakes, turtles, bugs and assorted conservation topics.

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