To point out the convoluted way the U.S. Forest Service figures out the future of Pennsylvania's only federal woodlands -- the Allegheny National Forest -- environmental groups cite Forest Service regulations from August 1997. There, agency officials explain how "to quantify the idea of 'solitude'" to create a "core area of solitude" -- all in the name of studying what might become, legally, "wilderness."
Their bureaucratic definition, which itself references a "book" of other regulations, has managed to make it nearly impossible to declare new spots officially free of roads or motorized recreation, let alone logging and oil or gas drilling, the groups charge. In formulating rules that disallow wilderness too close to a power line or a road, the federal government is merely creating more opportunities for roads, power lines and worse developments to cut apart the woods, they say.
It's not as if the more than 700,000-acre Allegheny National Forest is already teeming with official, solitude-inducing zones. The Forest Service owns only 513,000 acres within the forest's official boundary. Cobbled together from private owners beginning in 1923, these lands are a patchwork of property, and less than two percent, or 9,031 acres, of it is now classified as wilderness -- places without roads, permanent structures or vehicular recreation but which still allow hunting, fishing, camping and hiking.
The Forest Service's proposal for the next decade or more of the forest's life would create, at most, a further 5.6 percent (or 38,960 acres) of new wilderness. At worst, it calls for no additional wilderness at all, depending on which option the agency chooses.
The Forest Service will pick its next plan in March. Congress, when later making the plan law, usually follows the agency's recommendations.
Environmental groups say there is still time to influence both the Forest Service and Congress to go further in keeping the forest as wild as possible. They point to a move by senators in Vermont and Maine this fall to add more wilderness to the Green Mountain National Forest than the Forest Service recommended.
But the Forest Service still seems an obstacle locally.
"They've emphasized logging, oil and gas [drilling], and ATVs over all other uses," says Jim Kleissler, of Regent Square. Kleissler is the long-time leader of the Allegheny Defense Project, an environmental group hoping to get more wilderness designations into the Forest Service plan (among a host of changes) through its own proposal, called Allegheny Wild.
"The agency can't ignore such a groundswell of support for [our] Citizens Proposal," says Kirk Johnson, head of Friends of Allegheny Wilderness, another environmental group whose 2003 alternative forest plan would create 54,460 new acres of wilderness.
This fall's official public comment period drew support for both alternative plans. But Johnson, for one, realizes that the forest's future will not be decided by popular vote. "It's not like American Idol," he shrugs.
For starters, more money is at stake.
In Pennsylvania, rights to mine underground are owned separately from the right to use the surface. In the Allegheny National Forest, more mineral rights are in the hands of private owners -- covering 94 percent of the territory -- than in any other national forest in the country. It already has more oil and gas wells than the United States' 177 other national forests and grasslands combined.
And more wells are coming. The state Department of Environmental Protection, which issues oil and gas drilling permits, gave out a record 6,046 permits in 2005, beating 2004's record by 32.4 percent.
"It seems like this year we're going to set another record," reports Freda Tarbell, DEP spokesperson for the northern region of the state, which includes all of the Allegheny National Forest.
On top of that -- literally -- each year about 5,000 forest acres are being logged, adding up to about a fifth of the forest over the past two decades.
It's no coincidence that the Forest Service falls under the federal Department of Agriculture. This forest is, first, a commodity.
"Every day there are new roads through the forest that weren't there the day before," says Ryan Talbott, who replaced Kleissler as Allegheny Defense Project leader on Dec. 4. "In 10 years there's not going to be any reason to visit that forest."
Those who visit the forest regularly for various types of recreation may actually be wary of creating more official wilderness. They might well believe that federal wilderness designations put too many restrictions on human activity, says Kirk Johnson, of Friends of Allegheny Wilderness. To qualify as "wilderness," he says, the acreage "just needs to be largely natural in character" -- untrammeled, as the governing 1964 Wilderness Act puts it. "It doesn't have to be a pristine old-growth forest."
Of course, national forests, created more than 100 years ago, were never pristine preserves like national parks, except in the unsettled West. Here in the East, our national forests are second- or even third-growth woodlands. Just a year after the Allegheny National Forest was created, a new law called for such woodlands to be a continuous source of timber for America.
While the Allegheny National Forest was created in part to keep the headwaters of the Allegheny River there from filling with runoff soil from overdeveloped land and washing south -- a situation that once caused more Pittsburgh flooding -- all national forests are still multiple-use lands.
And as the Forest Service prepares its new management plan -- the first since 1986 -- environmental groups say the Allegheny's use as wildlife preserve and as plain wilderness is losing the competition to every other interest.
Jack Hedlund speaks for some of those interests as executive director of the Allegheny Forest Alliance, which represents the economic future of the four counties in which the forest lies -- Warren, McKean, Forest and Elk -- as well as the territory's seven school districts and most of its 35 townships. Designating increased acreage of the forest as wilderness, Hedlund believes, "is more related to emotion than a pragmatic look at the woods. It makes lots of people feel good, but it doesn't put a meal on the table of our people" by drawing more tourists.
"It might help the folks in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia or Cleveland who like to bop over here, do a little hiking and go home," he adds. "Hikers typically come here and spend little on anything. They may pick up some gas ... [but] our restaurants aren't filled with hikers. Wilderness has an appeal to a certain very minor segment of the population. We're looking for active use of the forest" -- from ATV trails to timbering, which by law gives a quarter of its receipts to the local economy.
His group, Hedlund says, is hoping no wilderness at all gets added to the plan.
That sentiment is echoed by Sue Swanson, who represents logging interests as head of the Allegheny Hardwood Utilization Group. Swanson estimates that the forest this year will produce "about 27 million board feet" of lumber -- only half of what these woodlands can produce under Forest Service supervision, she says.
"In the Allegheny National Forest, there's always a profit from their timber sales" because of demand for the forest's hardwood, Swanson explains. "It is, and it has been, the national forest that has the best profit."
Plus, as she and Hedlund contend, wilderness sections can't be managed for invasive species, diseases or insects, all of which can affect neighboring, non-forest areas.
"We would rather be able to deal with the impacts," Swanson says.
Of course, she adds, "there's a lot of areas [we] wouldn't log" because the terrain is too tough, or too ecologically sensitive. "But you like to keep your options open."
Mary Hosmer, a federal spokesperson for the Allegheny National Forest's administration, says they did not tally the 8,285 comments sent in by the public on the proposed forest plan. But she reports that the comments called for everything from "wilderness to no wilderness" -- from increases to decreases in everything from habitats for protected species to logging, drilling and recreational space.
Adding more than 50,000 acres to the forest's wilderness reserve is not feasible, she says. "There are other, higher uses. ... Some people want to have better fishing and hunting opportunities," which requires putting out deer forage. Bird watching is best in shrubs and younger trees, which requires "wood harvesting. Some people want to have motorized vehicle trails. Some people want to have snowmobile trails." And among the "other, higher uses," she says: "Some people want more oil and gas."
Environmental groups, however, can't agree on what exactly they want for the forest's future.
In devising the Friends of Allegheny Wilderness alternative wilderness plan, says Kirk Johnson, "We consciously selected ... areas so they would not have a conflict with other uses of the forest" -- including logging. "We sought to strike the right balance. Until Congress changes that [logging] mandate, and there has been no indication they have any plan to do that ... it is an entirely appropriate use of our national forests."
The Allegheny Defense Project, however, says the various laws creating national forests, instituted over decades, offer an option to treat the Commonwealth's forest differently. The organization now calls for an end to logging on all such federal lands. They also believe the state and federal governments should do everything possible to mitigate the effect of drilling, despite the overwhelming amount of privately held mining rights.
"They're taking the position that somebody else owns this and we can't do anything about it," says Tom Buchele, head of the University of Pittsburgh's Environmental Law Clinic, who assisted the Defense group with its critique of the Forest Service plan. "There's things they can do. There's a middle ground and they don't want to consider it."
Buchele suggests that the Forest Service could do everything from buying the mineral rights under forests outright to policing drilling platform sizes, making sure road construction doesn't cause the land to wash away, and instituting deviated drilling -- starting from a platform in more disturbed areas to drill into less disturbed areas.
Bob Gleeson, the permitting chief for the state DEP oil and gas management program, says such deviated drilling works on deeper holes but not on the forest's wells, which are considered shallow at 2,000 feet. "They've just been experimenting on these shallow holes," Gleeson says of the oil and gas industry. "So far it hasn't worked very well."
"It's really just a question of attitude," counters Buchele. "Clearly the Allegheny [forest administration] has taken the position that they want to create the least amount of wilderness possible."
"If everybody goes away unhappy, maybe the Forest Service thinks they've got a balance," concludes timber industry rep Swanson. The Forest Service "should be more up front about what's possible and what's not possible."
Johnson, of Friends, is more hopeful about the plan. "The best that can be done at this point is for people who are interested in protecting the last remnants of wilderness in our national forest" to write to their members of Congress, encouraging an eventual vote for maximum wilderness. He also says the 90-day legal appeals period following the springtime publication of the Forest Service proposal could provide an opening to change the plan if needed.
The Defense group has long criticized the Forest Service's decision-making methods, and ex-Defense head Kleissler says suing for plan changes is "the problem -- the way the process is set up, that's your only recourse."
But his group, too, believes public pressure can be effective.
"This is a national forest" and doesn't just belong to its four home counties, emphasizes Buchele. "We all have a stake in this and should be listened to. I think Pittsburgh should be thankful we have this forest three hours from us."
The Allegheny National Forest online:
National Forest Service plans: www.fs.fed.us/r9/forests/Allegheny
Friends of Allegheny Wilderness alternative plan: www.pawild.org
Allegheny Defense Project alternative plan: http://www.alleghenydefense.org/