Three Conservation Groups Will Sue the Federal Agencies Who Auctioned Off Wayne National Forest Land

by

NICK JUHASZ
  • NICK JUHASZ
The Center for Biological Diversity, Ohio Environmental Council, Heartwood and Sierra Club plan on filing a lawsuit against the federal agencies that arranged and oversaw the auction of public lands within the Wayne National Forest last month. The groups are challenging the approval process behind the auction, insisting that the federal agencies looked the other way on the easily studied and verifiable effects of fracking on the surrounding environmental and ecosystems.

The Dec. 13, 2016, auction marked the first time that the federal government had sold off public land in Ohio. Recent Congressional moves have environmental advocates concerned that the precedent is very real and that more public lands will be sold off for a nickel and a handshake in the future.

“Pipelines, well pads, and wastewater pits destroy habitat and harm people and wildlife,” Nathan Johnson, an attorney with the Ohio Environmental Council, said in a public statement. “These impacts are real. In 2014, a frack pad fire and chemical spill near the Wayne forced the evacuation of local residents and killed tens of thousands of fish and mussels.”

Read more about the Opossum River spill here.

Philadelphia-based Eclipse Resources spent $927,537 to get at the minerals on 11 parcels of land in the Wayne. Three other companies purchased the rest of the acreage. The main idea, Scene learned in a recent trip to the Wayne, is that private companies have been leasing mineral rights on adjacent private lands, and it is on those properties that companies will set up drilling operations (in many cases). Underground, remember, fracking is a horizontal operation; companies will be able to direct the high-pressure drills into the subsurface Wayne National Forest land and siphon natural gas from lands formerly owned and enjoyed by the public.

There has been no environmental impact study on the effects of fracking in the Wayne, which is one of the primary contentions of the conservation groups. Whether auctioned land or contiguous private land is being drilled, the groups say, the consequences were willfully ignored.

"When you look at these [parcels], it's like, 'What makes sense about this?'" Bern Township Trustee Roxanne Groff told Scene over coffee at the Village Bakery in Athens this month. (Groff works with the Athens County Fracking Action Network and is not associated with the lawsuit.) "These are all very steep slopes, [and] they all have some kind of stipulation on them from the forest service. So every one you look at, it's like, well, there are all kinds of places they could actually put pads that aren't in the Wayne itself, and then they bypass the Forest Service approval and review process."

In those cases, permits will need to be filed with the county. Scene will keep an eye on that.

“Fracking the Wayne National Forest in Ohio is like kicking someone when they’re down,” said Tabitha Tripp of Heartwood in a public statement. “This land has been overworked for the last 200 years. Are we not rich and wise enough now to let a tiny percentage go wild? Declining species need that. We need that. Instead, we are witness to the betrayal of the public trust and we have no recourse but to sue.”

Another auction of Wayne National Forest land is set for March 23, involving more than 1,100 acres. The Bureau of Land Management is currently accepting formal "protests" via its website.

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