Editorial: The forest's future / Pennsylvanians should call for balance in the plan

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In traditional marriage ceremonies, the minister asks if anyone in the assembly has objections to the impending union, using the words "speak now or forever hold your peace." That moment has arrived for Pennsylvanians in their fond relationship with the land symbolized by the beautiful Allegheny National Forest.

The U.S. Forest Service has proposed a 10-year management plan for the natural asset, which could be improved if enough people make their views known. While this plan -- which sets out four alternatives -- will be succeeded by others as the decades roll on, the decisions reached now will have large consequences for the future.

The Allegheny National Forest already is a focus of competing interests. It is in the first place a great green expanse of trees, scenic rivers and pockets of wilderness -- 513,000 acres straddling Elk, Forest, McKean and Warren counties. Being within a day's drive away for one-third of the U.S. population (just a few hours in Pittsburgh's case), it attracts campers, hikers, hunters, fishermen and many others who seek to get away from the concrete-scape of urban living.

But its natural resources also make it an engine of employment and revenue for the rural counties it touches. Logging has been a big part of that and will continue to be. Being close to the site of the first oil well in the United States, at Titusville, the park has some 8,000 active oil and gas wells.

The Forest Service's management plan sets timber cutting limits, but it does not place oil and gas exploration among its "major issues." Yet, to the alarm of environmentalists, this is the one area that is likely to see growth. As Post-Gazette staff writer Don Hopey reported Sunday, some 1,000 new wells are being drilled this year, with another 1,200 planned for next year.

It might not be quite a case of you can't see the forest for the derricks, but places of beauty can take only so much of the footprint of the modern industrial world.

The Forest Service, of course, tries to balance these competing interests, but it also serves the Bush administration, which in its friendliness to business has not been the best friend of the environment. While a continuing supply of oil and gas are important, so is the cause of conservation.

The Allegheny National Forest is Pennsylvania's only national forest. In an era when the world's unspoiled places are being sacrificed in the name of progress, at a time when Pennsylvania itself is promoting its natural attractions, this management plan needs to get a better handle on oil and gas drilling (although admittedly the issue is complicated because most of the subsurface mineral rights are owned privately). At the very least, the plan needs to designate more of the park as wilderness.

Unless it is extended, the public comment period will end Aug. 28, next Monday. Anyone who wishes can send comments to Allegheny National Forest, Forest Plan Revision, Box 36, Warren, PA 16365.

The time to speak is now ...



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