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This image shows coal methane wells near Black Warrior River in Tuscaloosa County. Conservationists say Bankhead National Forest is facing threat of coal-bed methane drilling. A provision the U.S. Forest Service inserted into the Alabama forest plan says more than 90 percent of the state's national forests can be leased for oil, gas and mineral development.
Courtesy photo by Lamar Marshall
This image shows coal methane wells near Black Warrior River in Tuscaloosa County. Conservationists say Bankhead National Forest is facing threat of coal-bed methane drilling. A provision the U.S. Forest Service inserted into the Alabama forest plan says more than 90 percent of the state's national forests can be leased for oil, gas and mineral development.

Bankhead faces threat?
Conservationists say forest could
be leased for coal-bed drilling

By Kristen Bishop
kbishop@decaturdaily.com 340-2443

BANKHEAD NATIONAL FOREST — Conservationists say Bankhead National Forest is facing its greatest threat in more than 20 years: coal-bed methane drilling.

More than 90 percent of Alabama's national forests can be leased for oil, gas and mineral development, according to a provision the U.S. Forest Service has inserted into the state forest plan.

Wild South, a Moulton-based environmental group, has threatened to sue the Forest Service, claiming the provision was illegally added to the forest plan and violates the National Environmental Policy Act.

"NEPA is a law that requires the federal agencies to provide management plans and mandates that the public be allowed to participate," said Wild South Executive Director Lamar Marshall.

"The Bush administration ordered the Department of Agriculture, who is over the Forest Service, to open up these lands so that they can be leased by energy companies. They have put us at the mercy of whomever wants to drill."

The Bureau of Land Management announced in March that it has already leased more than 75,000 acres of Talladega National Forest and thousands of acres of national forest land in Michigan, Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana.

Environmentalists say Bankhead National Forest may be next.

The Bureau of Land Management Web site confirms that public lands in the Black Warrior Coal Basin, which includes Bankhead, are up for lease.

The option could be especially enticing to companies looking to profit from undiscovered oil and gas resources in the area. According to a U.S. Geological Survey in 2002, about 8.5 trillion cubic feet of undiscovered natural gas lies beneath the surface of the Black Warrior Basin.

Marshall said the process of obtaining that underground treasure is damaging to the aboveground treasures the U.S. Forest Service promised to protect in its restoration plan
approved in 2003.

Nearly 7,100 coal-bed methane wells have been drilled in Alabama, mostly in Tuscaloosa and Jefferson counties. These areas serve as a prime example of the damage caused by methane drilling, said Marshall.

Some residents are fighting the industry, claiming the blasting of the underground coal seams has damaged their homes and contaminated their water.

"There's horror stories coming out of Tuscaloosa about people's wells and their water being unfit to drink," said Marshall.

Ray Vaughan, attorney for Wild South, has given forest officials 60 days notice of their intent to file a lawsuit.

"It gives them a chance to remedy the situation, but I don't see it happening this time," said Marshall.

This is the second time Wild South has gone up against the U.S. Forest Service. The nonprofit filed numerous lawsuits in the mid-'90s over the Forest Plan of 1985, which allowed logging companies to clear-cut the forest and convert it to loblolly pine plantations.

The new forest plan stops that practice, and forest officials, along with conservationist groups like Wild South, are working to repair the damage. Wild South Program Director Vince Meleski said it may take hundreds of years to restore the areas that took logging companies merely a decade to destroy.

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