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The black heart of the Alleghenies–Drilling and Logging in the National Forest February 22, 2006

Posted by dr. gonzo in Enivronmental Issues.

I love nature. I avidly pursue it. And just as avidly want to see it protected from profiteering and exploitation. We humans do enough damage as is.

Every couple years, since 2001, I have made the long drive to Pennsylvania, first to Pittsburgh and then on north to an area just south of Jamestown, New York. The heart of the Allegheny Mountains and right smack dab in the middle of the Allegheny National Forest. Truly one of the most amazing places on Earth. A place that I last visited in the spring of 2005.

One major thing stood out in my mind while I was there. There were a number of new natural gas and oil wells dotting the forested mountains. More than I remembered being there on my previous two excursions to the locale. New access roads crept up hillsides where before only trees stood. The forest still bore the scars of the reckless hack job done on its denizens. Fresh gravel roads, leading up to the brand new, pine green wells, shone brightly on even the rainy days, almost mocking the arboreal surroundings.

Just how many wells are there in the Allegheny National Forest? How much land is used for this purpose? What about logging? I wondered, standing in the forest, as a chainsaw roared in the distance. But it never actually occurred to me to try to figure that out until now.

Logging a fragile ecosystem

The ecosystem is delicate; there is a distinct balance to life. The trees that populate the Allegheny National Forest today aren’t all that old. Between 1890 and 1930 loggers nearly clear-cut the entire region and much of it lay barren. Most of the forested land in this part of Pennsylvania is post-1923 growth. The old-growth forest was made up mostly of beech and hemlock trees. Now the forest’s trees are predominatly black cherry and other light-loving hardwoods. These trees matured quickly and by 1940 the forest had taken on an appearance that resembles what we see today in the ANF.

As an old, forest-hardened Pennsylvanian once told me. “There are only nine acres of virgin timber up here.” I thought he was referring to the general area we were in but he corrected me. “No, in the whole forest,” he said. While an exagerration, it puts into perspective just how new the forest is and how much of it was cut down.

There are still a few places to find some of that virgin, old-growth forest. They include an area called Heart’s Content (122 acres) and the Tionesta Scenic Area (2,018 acres), both in the Allegheny National Forest. The old-growth forest once covered 6 million acres of the Allegheny Plateau in Pennsylvania and New York. (Note: the Heart’s Content link only points to the page which links to the ANF page on Heart’s Content, it wasn’t working correctly when I did this so maybe it will by the time this gets posted).

Of course, before Europeans arrived to destroy everything the forest existed just fine, for centuries, without the benefit of selective clear cutting. Which is why I hate when people claim that selective clear cutting is beneficial to the long term health of the forest, like this Hoosier. That kind of logic implies the forest could not sustain itself optimally without the assitance of human beings, and it’s nonsense.

Excerpt from Michigan City Dispatch article linked above:

“Of course, just about everyone loves big trees, but the only thing better than a big forest is a big, healthy, sustainable forest. And properly managed clear cuts are good for the long-term health of trees.”

What planet are these people from? How can killing the trees be good for their long-term health? Chopping limbs off of people isn’t good for their long-term health.

Of course, the Forest Service doesn’t help matters by claiming similar points on their numerous Web sites.

One comment appears to be an attempt to justify logging in a round about way. From the USFS’ Allegheny National Forest Web site:

“Even then the hemlock/beech forest was not totally primeval in character. Disturbances such as tornado and blowdown were a common natural event that created openings in the forest. Native Americans burned the forest to improve berry and oak mast production, hunting, and ease of travel.”

See, so it’s okay if we mess up the forest because someone or something has always been messing it up. Yeah, whatever. Even the Forest Service acknowledges that the forest was not unhealthy before the modern logging era. Mary Hosmer, a spokeswoman for the Allegheny National Forest said:

“The first lands to become the Allegheny NF were not purchased until 1923, well after the era of exploitive logging. As to forest health records, none exist for the timeframes prior to the creation of the Allegheny NF. There is no reason to believe that the forest was not healthy at that time.”

But here is why the forest service says timber harvest is important:

“For example, harvesting timber provides wood products that we all use and creates openings which allow sunlight to reach the forest floor to stimulate seedlings, berries and other plants that wildlife need. This provides opportunities for berry pickers, birdwatchers and hunters.”

I still contend that killing trees cannot be healthy. Berry pickers, bird watchers and hunters? That is patently absurd.

As far as how many trees are being “harvested” (like they are some crop) in the Allegheny National Forest, the USFS has published some numbers. (Some of them are included in the graphic above, for those you not willing to read all of this text, the numbers are also listed below).

ANF Logging Stats–From the USFS

– 1986 Forest Plan Allowable Sale Quantity (ASQ): 94.5 million board feet (MMBF*) per year
– ANF Timber Harvest Capablity (95-05): 53.2 MMBF per year
– 2003 total wood sold: 23.5 MMBF, 14.4 MMBF was sawtimber which sold at an avg. of $1,774 per MBF, total sale revenue=$16.9 million
– Total BF under contract (9.30.04): 30.4 MMBF
– Avg. annual harvest (80-05): 58 MMBF
– Avg. annual harvest (87-04): 51 MMBF
– Avg. annual harvest (87-98): 67.6 MMBF
– Avg. annual acreage harvested (87-04): 5,614 (or 1.1% of total ANF acreage annually), total acreage in last 18 years=101,052 (19.7% of total ANF acreage)
– 1998 total wood sold: 9.8 MMBF, 4.5 MMBF was sawtimber which sold at avg. of $1,193 per MBF, total sale revenue=$5.4 million
– Avg. annual “treated” acreage (87-05): 7,407, Total: 133,326

*Remember: MMBF=million board feet, MBF=thousand board feet

Other Logging Related Facts:

Forest types in the Allegheny National Forest:

Allegheny Hardwoods (Black Cherry, Ash, Yellow Poplar)
Northern Hardwoods (Beech, Sugar Maple, Hemlock)
Upland Hardwoods (Red Maple, Black Birch)
Oak Type (Red, White, Chestnut and Black Oak)

– The ANF has roughly 1/3 of the world’s black cherry furniture veneer and 25% of the United States black cherry sawtimber.
– All time high for black cherry saw timber: $4,850 per MBF (2003); broke ’98 record of $2,505 (wow, almost doubled).
– Black cherry veneer is very desirable for fine furniture.
– The primary method of timber treatment is thinning (annual average since 1987 of 5,103 acres), followed by final harvest (1,908 acres) and selection cuts (396 acres).

Source: ANF Web site & Mary Hosmer.

If we look even closer we find that the average timber harvest between 2000 and 2004 has maintained a level significantly lower than the historical average of 53.2 MMBF (80-04).

According to statistics provided by Hosmer the average annual harvest between 2000 and 2004 was around 17 MMBF, with a low, in 2000, of 14.2 MMBF.

Days of drilling gone by

The forest is littered with relics of gas and oil explorations of the past; the whole region is the nerve center of the Pennsylvania gas and oil industry. Rusted pipes span creeks and dissapear into the lush, green woods. Old and rusted-out gas pumps sit alongside age-old oil tanks, dormant and crumbling from years of neglect. Rusty wires run along the rusty pipes waiting to ensnare the foot of its next victim, human or otherwise. Clean up has never seemed to be much of a priority.

However, there are regulations on the books regarding the clean up of abandoned gas and oil well, including those within the ANF.

Freeda Tarbell, the community relations coordinator for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection works with the DEP at the Northwest Regional Office in Meadville, PA and said her office is responsible for issuing all oil and gas permits in northern Pennsylvania.

She quickly pointed out that the Pennsylvania Oil and Gas Act of 1984 governs site clean up both after well drilling and after well plugging. The applicable section of the law is 601.206. (It’s about halfway down the page).

“The responsible party has nine months after completion of the well or nine months after the well is plugged to restore the site and remove equipment,” Tarbell said. She added that there is a high rate of compliance because drilling activity involves mostly active, viable companies.

That being said, there are a lot of abandoned sites that existed prior to the law’s passage.

“There are literally thousands of abandoned wells on public lands and privately held property in Pennsylvania where wells were drilled prior to the Oil and Gas Act and the companies or individuals who were responsible for the drilling activity no longer exist,” Tarbell said

Literally thousands. I figured just as much based on my own personal observations in the ANF and the surrounding lands. Of course, there would be “literally thousands”, Pennsylvania is where oil drilling started, in 1859 at Titusville.

All of this abandoned equipment has some potential for harmful environmental impacts, which the Pennsylvania DEP downplayed.

“There is the potential for this abandoned equipment to impact the environment. The scenario that provides the most potential for impact would be an old tank of oil that could develop a leak,” Tarbell said. “These tanks might hold a volume of product that at most would be in the tens of gallons range, so if a leak did occur, the area of impact would be very limited.”

Limited indeed but still bad for such a beautiful forest.

Despite the Pennsylvania State DEP confirming the fact that there were “literally thousands” of abandoned well sites in northwest Pennsylvania the U.S. Forest Service thought it was important to point out that the equipment would be “promply removed” unless it was of historic significance, all while not commenting beyond “promptly removed” concerning what happens to abandoned wells.

“When oil and gas wells are plugged under today’s standards and guidelines, if the equipment or other remains are determined to be not eligible for inclusion into the National Register of Historic Places, the equipment is promptly removed.

If the remains are found to be historically significant and have been determined to be on or eligible for the National Register, then steps are taken to work cooperatively with the owners of the mineral rights to protect and preserve the historic remains. The equipment technically belongs to the owners of the mineral rights. Most often this protection can be accomplished through preservation in place and working with the owner of the mineral rights, the operator, and the Department of Environmental Protection to design operations to avoid adversely affecting the historic remains.

If preservation in place is not a viable option then other mitigation measures may be more appropriate dependent upon the circumstances. These mitigation measures may involve data recovery via agreed up documentation standards, recording the historic material and preserving it through restoration and curation, or other agreed upon measures.

Another way of preserving the history may involve acquiring the equipment or material from the owner of the mineral rights in order to protect the historic significance. We have an example of this last method of preserving history in the form of an old central power house the forest acquired from the owner. This powerhouse represents the historic petroleum industry and the forest has interpreted the site so recreation visitors can enjoy this unique piece of history.”

That’s a heck of an answer. Of course, I asked nothing about historic places just about abandoned wells, talk about dodging the question. How many abandoned wells could possibly be historic in 2006 Pennsylvania anyway?

Historic oil and gas sites

Naturally, an answer to the above question had to be sought. So I followed up with Mary Hosmer, who, if you do not remember, is a spokeswoman for the Allegheny National Forest through the U.S. Forest Service.

It turns out that there is a significant difference it what is considered “historic” and what is considered “historically significant,” the classification has a profound impact on how the U.S. Forest Service approaches each potentially historic site.

So what is the difference and how many wells fall into these categories?

“Our archaeologist states that the answer is an unknown amount because it depends upon how you are defining ‘historic,’” Hosmer said. “The forest records every oil and gas site that is older than 50 years as an historic site as part of its responsibilities under the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966. The Allegheny National Forest has hundreds of ‘historic’ oil and gas sites if this definition is used.”

The last part of that quote is just a PR way of saying “yes, there are hundred of abandoned oil and gas sites in the ANF and they aren’t going anywhere.” I must say I take exception to that.

Earlier she told us that, “if the equipment or other remains are determined to be not eligible for inclusion into the National Register of Historic Places, the equipment is promptly removed.” It would appear that hundreds of wells that are 50+ years old were never “promptly removed.”

She continued.

“Not all ‘historic’ sites, though, are historically significant. That is, not all sites are important enough for the Forest Service to take steps to protect, preserve, and or interpret them.”

It looks like, even though some of the wells are historic, they are essentially old garbage that no one is going to clean up. Like I said clean up doesn’t appear to be a big priority, even on public lands.

Given the lengthy response referencing historic gas sites from the U.S. Forest Service regarding my original question about abandoned wells one would think that historic preservation was something the administrators of the Allegheny National Forest spend ample time working on.

Based on the numbers this would not appear to be true, however.

“Anywhere from a half dozen to up to a dozen sites are presently being considered for nomination to the National Register of Historic Places,” Hosmer said.

That is, 6 to 12 being considered for historic preservation, out of “hundreds of historic oil and gas sites.” I am sure the man power crunch is killing the USFS on the historic preservation side of things.

If that isn’t taxing enough on Forest Service, they already have two sites determined eliglible for historic preservation.

“The first site is the Old Powerhouse . . . that site is located on State Route 321 approximately one mile south of the junction with State Route 59 in McKean County,” Hosmer said.

The second site was the one I found more interesting of the two, though the first one is the only one I have actually seen, real special, just look at the photo.

“The second site is a ‘ghost’ town site we are keeping confidential in order to protect the site from vandalism and looting.”

Sounds cool, wish I could see it. What is the point of preservation in secret? What can we learn from that?

The current scenario

The Allegheny National Forest, like all national forests, is described as multi-use, meaning conservation, mineral exploitation and recreation.

Since 1986 the gathering of natural resources, specifically natural gas and petroleum, in the ANF has been ramped up significantly. An average of 188 wells have been drilled annually (according to the U.S. Forest Service’s 2001 Monitoring Statistics) over the last 20 years. In 2004 the USFS said there were about 7,000 producing wells, that number has changed in the year or so since.

That would mean no less than 3,760 new oil and gas wells have been drilled in the 20 years since 1986 because once drilled, wells produce for about 25 or 30 years.

But using the older stats (to be conservative), if just over half of the wells in the forest were installed in the last 20 years that must mean the others were installed in the previous 20, because of the Forest Service’s life span estimate for the wells. But that only makes sense to a point.

That would mean that 3,240 wells would have had to been installed in the 10-year period between 1976 and 1986 (if the Forest Service’s stat on well life span is correct). I suppose that’s possible but it doesnt seem to match up logically considering approximately the same number of wells were installed in the 20 years after 1986.

Any wells installed pre-1976 should not be producing any longer. Those numbers seem suspicious.

The whole of northern Pennsylvania has seen a drilling boon over the last five years.

In the 27-county area covered by Tarbell’s Regional Office the number of permits issued for oil and gas drilling has increased 230% over the last five years. A jump from 1,134 permits in 2000 to 3,044 permits in 2005.

The state DEP doesn’t have the numbers on drilling on public lands but Tarbell did say, “drilling activity on public land is believed to mirror the overall trend.”

The folks representing the Allegheny, Mary Hosmer in particular, tell me that there are currently over 8,000 producing oil and gas wells in the ANF, this is an estimate and up from the 2001 estimate of 7,000, cited above.

She also said that each year wells are plugged and drilled but in general more wells are drilled than plugged. Since 1986 that average has been 225 new wells per year, but that number is fluid as a look at the 2005 numbers reveal.

“However, with the increase in oil and natural gas prices, 688 wells were drilled on the National Forest System surface in 2005,” Hosmer said.

I guess that makes sense, the more oil and gas wells a company has the more oil and gas the company has to sell, no wonder oil companies returned record profits. Not only did prices increase but so did domestic production. Amazing, this is the kind of information it would seem the oil companies and federal government generally tend to want to dissuade the population from believing.

All of this drilling makes the ANWR proposal look more useless than I already know it is.

Development in the ANF isn’t limited to oil wells, although between the wells, pipelines and electrical lines approximately 50,000 acres of the 500,000+ acre forest are used for mineral procurement and about 191,000 acres on National Forest System surface are in developed or potential oil and gas development areas, Hosmer explained. Although, coal has not been mined on the forest lands for decades.

An important part of the oil and gas infrastructure, roads, break up the continuity of the environment as well.

There are an estimated 2,787 miles of road within the Allegheny National Forest. They are divided among seperate entities, the U.S. Forest Service, state and township and the oil, gas and mineral industries.

The USFS operates 1,270 miles of road in the ANF. The state of Pennsylvania and various local authorities operate about 281 miles of some of the most confusing roadways in the country. The oil industry operates and maintains a USFS-estimated 1,236 miles of road within the forest.

Some activists contend that the Forest Service has given oil and gas companies free reign to cut roads and destroy the forest to access the underground deposits.

From the Allegheny Defense Project’s Web site:

“Unfortunately, nearly 95% of the mineral rights in the Allegheny National Forest are privately held, meaning that under antiquated mining laws private developers can cut roads into the forest and drill virtually at will.”

While Hosmer conceded that 93 percent of mineral rights in the forest are privately owned she vehemently denied that companies have free reign to cut roads and drill, despite the drilling of 688 new wells last year.

Forest Service Requirements to Develop mineral sites:

– proof of ownership
– a designated field representative to work with the Forest Service
– a map showing a proposed location and dimensions of all facilities, a plan of operation (including drilling and construction schedules
– an Erosion and Sedimentation Control Plan at least 60 days ahead of any work
– resource specialists to review the proposal- This is the process where the Forest Service negotiates with the lease holder on resource concerns and identifies ways to mitigate or reduce surface impacts

– after the Forest Service review, the District Ranger then issues a notice to proceed containing all the mitigation measures identified in the review.

Source: Mary Hosmer (USFS)

The oil and gas industry operates nearly as many miles of roads in the ANF as the federal government. If recent trends continue in northern Pennsylvania and in the Allegheny National Forest then we are likely to see even more need for access roads being built into mountainsides. This will further upset the natural balance that life has established in this ecosystem.

The ramped up drilling on public lands should be of concern to all Americans. Little remains of a once wild North American continent. It is our duty to preserve what little has not been exploited for future generations and ourselves to enjoy and behold.

Photos: Photo 1: Blue Jay Creek in the Allegheny National Forest, Warren County, PA. It is One of dozens of cold-water, rock-bottom streams in the region. (Credit: Me) Photo 2: An abandoned and rusted-out oil tank on the banks of the Tionesta Creek in the Allegheny National Forest, Warren County, Pennsylvania. (Credit: Me) Photo 3: The Drake Well in Titusville, Pennsylvania. The world’s first oil well, built in 1859. (Credit: PA DEP) Photo 4: The “historically significant” old powerhouse in the Allegheny National Forest, McKean, County, PA. (Credit: USFS-Allegheny National Forest) Photo 5: Pump jack on an oil well in the Allegheny National Forest, northwest Pennsylvania. (Credit: PA Dept. of Conservation and Natural Resources)


1. Anonymous - April 7, 2006

Excellent blog Gonzo. Have you been in touch with the ADP?

Also, Friends of the Allegheny have a wilderness proposal to increase the paltry designated wilderness in the ANF. They are doing a ton of work to increase the wilderness area in the ANF from a ridiculously low 2% to something closer to 9%, still lower than most Eastern forests, and well below Western forests.


2. gonzo - April 7, 2006

Thanks. I actually moved my blog to wordpress, http://www.fromthegonzo.wordpress.com

I did try to get in touch with ADP they got back to me and said they would have a response but never got back to me. Anyway, I will import these comments to my new site. Check it out if you have time.

3. qazse - July 13, 2006

Nice job. I live in Northeast Pennsylvania and have been to ANF and the nearby Cook State Forest on two occasions. A wonderful area. Translate: a wonderful mark to fuck over.

Ever read Jim Hightower’s Thieves in High Places? If one were to read anything in the book, Pages 27 to 32 are essential regarding environmental mispolicy.

I’ll be back

4. dr. gonzo - July 13, 2006

Qazse: Thanks for stopping by. I was just out there in May/June again. Still beautiful despite the increasing number of wells being sunk.

This was the first time I had gone out to ANF and actually seen the gas and oil people working on new wells. I could not believe the number of new wells being drilled, truly saddening. As if the oil and gas from ANF is going to save the U.S. from its energy woes.

5. jim - December 4, 2006

check out http://www.gas owners against theft.com

6. woodsman - January 1, 2007

You are a fuckin’ wack job!!

7. ChildrenFurnitureFour - January 26, 2008


Finally I found a blog that shares my interests. Thanks and keep up the good work.

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