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Strength in Numbers; Fighting for PA's Only National Forest

May 17, 2010

WARREN, Pa. - Six conservation groups in Pennsylvania are coming together to fight for more federal protection for the state's only national forest. The Pennsylvania Wilderness Coalition faces a unique challenge. The USDA Forest Service manages the 513,000 acres of public land on the surface of the Allegheny National Forest, but private interests own 93 percent of what's underneath - meaning much of the forest is open to oil drilling.

There are thousands of oil wells in the forest. According to Kirk Johnson, executive director of Friends of Allegheny Wilderness, if a company sets up two dozen wells over 500 acres, the impact on plants and wildlife is extensive.

"That's going to require a great deal of road building and constructing the wells themselves and the associated well pads, which are about an acre each."

David Sublette with the Pennsylvania chapter of the Sierra Club says his group worked to get the initial wilderness designation in the forest, which came in 1984. He hopes this new effort will allow Pennsylvania to keep pace with the rest of the country.

"Nationally, 18 percent of the national forests are designated wilderness, whereas only less than 2 percent of our forest is wilderness. So, all we want to do is get that percentage up."

Johnson says the coalition recognizes the rights of companies to extract resources from the land, but he says recognition of the future also has its place.

"It's very important that we set also set aside some areas of the forest to be left in their natural condition on a permanent basis, so that that kind of unfragmented wildlife habitat will always be there."

Currently, only two relatively small areas in the forest are designated as wilderness. The new coalition hopes strength in numbers will get Congress to act on legislation to set aside more acreage for hiking, hunting and camping.

Tom Joseph/Diane Ronayne, Public News Service - PA