Critics assail draft of management plan for Allegheny National Forest

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Chris Little, a member of the Allegheny National Forest equine advisory committee, told officials presiding at a public hearing on a new 10-year forest management plan that he supported an option that allows for open riding on most of the forest land.

After that, comments at the USDA Forest Service hearing on the campus of Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania pretty much went downhill at a gallop.

For three hours, two dozen speakers told Kathleen Morse, Allegheny National Forest supervisor, and Bill Connelly, forest service planner, that the plans forest officials labored over for three years were deficient in many ways.

Ryan Talbot, forest watch coordinator for the Allegheny Defense Project, an environmental group opposed to commercial timbering in the national forest, said the draft plan has "significant deficiencies," including not identifying oil and natural gas drilling as a major issue like it is in the current forest energy plan approved in 1986.

"Numerous acres in the national forest are affected by the oil and gas drilling, and you have the authority to stop it under the Pennsylvania Oil and Gas Act," he said.

A parade of a dozen snowmobilers also spoke against the forest service plan, criticizing it for not keeping oil and gas development in check, and for not allowing more access to snowmobiles throughout the forest.

Kevin Davis, president of the Allegheny Federation of Snowmobile Clubs, said the forest should eliminate restrictions that limit snowmobiles to 350 miles of trails. Instead it should open all trails, pipelines and tower lines, unless they are posted as closed.

"We also want to open up all the natural recreation areas that are now closed, like Tracy Ridge and other low-impact areas," he said.

About 45 people attended the hearing, which was the first of two during the 90-day comment period that is to end Monday. The second is scheduled from 5 to 9 p.m. today at the Kane Area Community Center, 46 Fraley St., Kane, McKean County.

The planning process for replacing the Allegheny's original 10-year management plan began in September 2003. Pennsylvania's only national forest is one of two in the eastern United States that have not updated their original planning documents.

The plans provide a framework to guide local forest service decision-making on such topics as timber sales, wilderness designation, watershed management, recreation, road building and game management.

The management plan for the Allegheny National Forest is more complicated than those of many other national forests because the federal government purchased only the surface property rights when it established the forest in 1923.

The mineral, or subsurface, rights under more than 93 percent of the 513,000-acre forest were retained by private landowners and oil and gas companies, allowing them to access oil and gas deposits. In recent years, the pace of their drilling has accelerated because oil and gas prices are very high.

Paul Lyskava, representing the Pennsylvania Forest Products Association, asked the forest service for permission to cut more wood on the Allegheny forest, including using more even-age management, or clear cutting, which provides for more black cherry tree growth. Cherry is the most valuable of the hardwoods that grow in the forest.

The forest service has proposed a maximum annual timber cut of 56 million board feet, up from the current maximum of 53.2 million board feet. The actual annual timber cuts over the last 15 years have averaged 46.4 million board feet. The national forest would have to get its annual budget appropriation increased from $17 million to $27 million to allow it to conduct timber sales at the new proposed maximum rate.

Bill Belitskus, board president of the Allegheny Defense Project, asked the forest service to extend the public comment period to allow for a fuller discussion of issues affecting the future of the forest -- timbering, recreation and wilderness.

"Public sentiment has been outright ignored on the draft plan," Mr. Belitskus said. "Given the extractive resource history of the forest we need a plan that will address what we want the forest to look like in 100 years."


Don Hopey can be reached at dhopey@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1983.


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