WARREN, Pa. -- Visitors to the cool, leafy green Allegheny National Forest stand a much better chance of seeing an oil or gas well than a black bear.
Some will argue that's because there are roads leading right to the wells and they don't move around or hide like the bears. But the numbers have a lot to do with it, too.
There are between 300 and 500 bears in Pennsylvania's only national forest.
But there are more than 8,000 active oil and gas wells pumping away.
Throw into the mix at least 20,000 old, inactive wells, the 1,000 wells that will be drilled in the forest this year, plus the prospective plumbing for 1,200 wells planned for next year, and the odds of spotting a burly bruin before coming upon a well rig are getting longer by the day.
The rapid expansion of exploration and well drilling in the national forest over the past two years has been spurred by skyrocketing oil and gas prices. And its location along scenic roadways, in endangered rattlesnake habitat, in the middle of popular hiking trails, in the Allegheny Front National Recreation Area and around the edges of possible wilderness designations has caused concern within the Forest Service and widespread consternation outside of it.
The wells have become such a hot issue that an unlikely alliance of snowmobile groups and the Allegheny Defense Project, an environmental group opposed to all commercial logging in the forest, has formed in opposition and is threatening court action if it isn't curbed.
Despite that growing controversy, oil and gas exploration and well drilling are not among the "major issues" addressed in the Forest Service's draft 10-year management plan for the 513,000 acres of federal forest land 150 miles north of Pittsburgh.
That plan, more than three years in the making and scheduled to be finalized in December, will become the Forest Service's primary guidance document for managing the forest for at least the next decade. It will replace the Allegheny's original 10-year management plan adopted in 1986.
A final round of public hearings on the document will be held tomorrow in Slippery Rock and Tuesday in Kane, McKean County.
Although the plan's timber cut limit, recreation designations and proposed wilderness areas will attract much discussion, oil and gas wells are sure to come up, according to Karen Atwood, a longtime volunteer in the federal forest and member of the Tionesta Valley Snowmobile Club and the Allegheny Federation of Snowmobile Clubs.
"The impact of the oil and gas well drilling has just about ruined the snowmobile system in the forest," she said. "We need more of a component for recreation of all forms: snowmobiling, hiking, skiing, sled dogs. People aren't going to come up here to look at well rigs, pipe racks and drill pads."
Jim Kleissler, Allegheny Defense Project executive director, said the Forest Service hadn't used the options available to it under existing state and federal laws to control the drilling, which has increased fourfold in the past three years.
"Given the numbers, it's hard to imagine that it's not a major issue for the Forest Service," Mr. Kleissler said. "Oil and gas exploration affects all areas of recreation, wildlife conservation and stream quality. If it chose to, the Forest Service could prevent it or limit where and how it happens."
Bill Connelly, the Forest Service planning officer, said the service had been working with the industry to minimize disturbances. It's also conducting an internal review of oil and gas development in the forest, and working on new standards and guidelines for oil and gas well road building and stream impacts.
Steve Rhodes, president of the Pennsylvania Oil and Gas Association, the oil and gas producers trade group, acknowledged the increased concern raised by recent record oil and gas activity in the forest, but said there had been "minimal impact on the forest" by the more than 30 companies working there.
He said the conflicts occurred because, when the forest was established, the government bought the surface rights but not the more expensive mineral rights from the private landowners.
"We have an obligation to accommodate one another," Mr. Rhodes said. "If the Forest Service wants to prevent drilling in certain areas of the forest, like proposed wilderness, it can purchase those mineral rights."
Mr. Connelly said the Forest Service didn't make the wells a focus issue in the plan because the subsurface mineral rights under 93 percent of the forest are privately owned. There are known oil and gas deposits under 190,000 acres of the forest and that acreage is expanding as exploration pushes into more remote areas.
"We're looking at our staffing in this area, how it has responded to the increased activity, and trying to get some help to better interact with the oil and gas operators and protect our resources," Mr. Connelly said. "Trying to find a balance between preserving the forest and allowing access is a difficult problem."
It says something about how far the Allegheny National Forest has come since it was cobbled together from mostly clear-cut and fire-scarred private lands on the Allegheny Plateau in 1923 that people are fighting over how its minerals, once-again-valuable hardwoods, scenic beauty and recreational venues will be used.
Sprawled across Elk, Forest, McKean and Warren counties, the forest, established to protect Western Pennsylvania watersheds from flooding and erosion, has grown to become the linchpin of a rural economy grounded in energy extraction, forest products and, more recently, outdoor tourism and recreation.
Those sometimes competing economic and conservation forces are reflected in the 1,450 pages of support documents compiled for the draft plan and in the more than 3,000 public comments received by the Forest Service. The Allegheny is one of 42 national forests currently revising their forest management plans.
The Allegheny's draft plan discusses four management options but identifies as its preferred option one that would allow the cutting of up to 56 million board feet of wood a year, establish a linked pattern of older trees for wildlife habitat and designate five areas for intensive use by all-terrain vehicles and five remote recreation areas for non-motorized use.
The proposed timber cut maximum is slightly larger than the 53.2 million board feet allowed by the 1986 plan, though the actual annual timber cut averaged 46.4 million board feet. Mr. Connelly said the Allegheny would have to get its federal budget allocation increased from $17 million to $27 million to identify, mark and access timbering acreage at the proposed maximum level.
The preferred option also recommends two wilderness study areas: the 9,033-acre Tracy Ridge tract, and the 5,063-acre Chestnut Ridge area, both in the extreme northern part of the forest near the New York state line. Establishing those areas as wilderness, a designation requiring an act of Congress, would increase the Allegheny's wilderness acreage from 9,000 acres to 24,000 acres, still less than 5 percent of the total forest when the average for other national forests in the East is 10 percent.
"What I like about option C is it's a balanced mix of wilderness, non-motorized, motorized, developed recreation, habitat diversity, newer forest management and forested linkages," Mr. Connelly said. "And the wilderness study areas are a significant designation in an area as fragmented and roaded as the Allegheny."
Plan has opponents
But the draft plan isn't as well liked by many outside the Forest Service's Warren offices. Elected officials in some of the counties where the forest is situated say the plan doesn't do enough to promote the local economy and job growth and doesn't include a controversial proposal to build a lodge on forest land along the Allegheny Reservoir near Kinzua Dam.
Bill Belitskus, a forest activist, said the Forest Service's preferred option was far from balanced when it comes to recreation and conservation funding.
"The Forest Service plan is not going where we think we need to go," Mr. Belitskus said, noting that the timber program is funded for $6 million while recreation gets $1.2 million and watershed protection $500,000. "We haven't had the discussion on the direction the forest should be going. Why increase timbering when we're looking at almost half the forest impacted by oil and gas drilling?"
On the other side of the saw, Jack Hedlund, executive director of the Allegheny Forest Alliance, a group representing the timber industry, school districts and municipalities that support more timbering, said he wasn't happy with the forest corridors for wildlife, a timber management plan that doesn't cut enough of the maturing forest, or the wilderness recommendations.
"Nothing in it adds to the socioeconomic value of our communities. Passive value doesn't translate to bucks up here," Mr. Hedlund said. "Why enhance the wilderness system when it's one of the least used areas of the forest?"
But the preferred option, while more than doubling the meager wilderness designations in the national forest that Howard Zahniser, author of the 1964 federal Wilderness Act, called home, still falls far short of the eight new wilderness areas suggested by Friends of Allegheny Wilderness.
Designating all of those areas for wilderness would add 54,000 acres to the Allegheny's wilderness total and have minimal impact on oil and gas well drilling and logging, according to Kirk Johnson, executive director of FAW, the group he founded four years ago to promote wilderness on the Allegheny.
He said the Forest Service had used arbitrary criteria to limit the wilderness eligibility of many of the areas.
"Each of our proposed areas is unique and has the attributes needed to recommend it for wilderness," said Mr. Johnson, who was leading a hike up a steep hillside shaded by 100-year-old oak, cucumber magnolia and shagbark hickory in the 3,000-acre Cornplanter tract, one of the eight proposed by the group.
"I'm not sure the Forest Service gets out here much and probably does most of its wilderness analysis from maps," he said after a half-hour hike in which he gained almost 600 feet in elevation and a sun-dappled plateau favored by cerulean warblers. "This is really remote and peaceful. It's everything you'd expect of a wilderness area."
A deep green silence answered.
Here's how to participate
The public comment period on the draft plan and its preferred option will end Aug. 28.
The hearing tomorrow will be held in the Spotts Auditorium, in the Spotts World Culture Building on Slippery Rock University Campus in Slippery Rock. The hearing Tuesday will be in the Kane Area Community Center, 46 Fraley St., Kane, McKean County. Both hearings will run from 5 to 9 p.m. Those wishing to speak at the hearings can sign up beginning at 4:30 p.m. Each speaker will be limited to five minutes.
Anyone wishing to send written comments can mail them to Allegheny National Forest, Forest Plan Revision, Box 36, Warren PA 16365.
Draft forest plan and environmental impact statement can be accessed online at htpp://www.fs.fed.us/r9/forests/allegheny/projects/forest_plan_revision/DEIS-LRMP/index.php
Don Hopey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1983.