Protesters decry fracking

Published 9:55 am Tuesday, December 13, 2016

COLUMBUS (AP) — A national forest in Ohio has closed its offices to the public through Tuesday, the day it auctions 1,600 acres of park land for fracking, in anticipation of extended public protests.

About 50 people demonstrated against the auction at Wayne National Forest headquarters in Nelsonville on Saturday. The Center for Biological Diversity says environmentalists and Native American groups participated.

Similar protests have occurred in downtown Columbus.

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Opponents also delivered more than 99,000 petition signatures to the U.S. Department of the Interior to stop Tuesday’s auction, The Columbus Dispatch reported. A similar plan to lease fracking sites in the forest was dropped in 2011 after public outcry.

Opponents argue allowing fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, in the park will harm water systems and wildlife and destroy the park’s scenic beauty.

A Bureau of Land Management study found the high-pressure oil-and-gas drilling technique would have no significant environmental impact and would not violate any known environmental protection requirements or local, state, federal or tribal laws.

Drilling opponents dispute the bureau’s findings, which they say were based on a limited, outdated review. They’d like to see a new round of environmental analysis.

“They’re trying to cram everything into this outdated, 10-year-old bottle,” said Nathan Johnson, a natural resources attorney for the Ohio Environmental Council. “It’s inexcusable.”

In defending the process, U.S. Forest Service Eastern Region planning director Tony Erba said, “At the end of the day, it is a federal official’s decision to be made.”

A 30-day comment period was opened after the auction was announced in October. The newspaper reports the Bureau of Land Management is wading through 105 comments and expects to post complete responses to each by the end of Monday.

The 33 parcels up for auction lie in the far eastern section of the forest. The online sale Tuesday allows for exploration. Companies would have to file separately for a drilling application.

Protester Elizabeth Bowlen, of Columbus, told the paper she grew up near Marietta and spent time hiking, kayaking and camping in the national forest.

“A lot of people view national forests as protected for us and for biodiversity. I feel that is being threatened,” she said. “People are really shocked.”

U.S. Rep. Bill Johnson, a Marietta Republican, said the forest is different things to different people.

“It is my hope that this exhaustive review process continues to strike the appropriate balance between the legacy of energy production and recreation activities frequently enjoyed by many,” he said.