Residents take Wayne National Forest mineral rights fight to D.C.

Photo courtesy of Taylor McKinnon/Center for Biological Diversity This photo from the Center for Biological Diversity shows a portion of the Wayne National Forest.

MARIETTA — Private property owners in and around Wayne National Forest have taken their cause all the way to the nation’s capital in an effort to protect their land and mineral leasing rights.

Representatives from the National Association of Royalty Owners (NARO) and the Landowners for Energy Access and Safe Exploration (LEASE) met in July with Ohio Senators Sherrod Brown and Rob Portman, Congressmen Bill Johnson (R-OH 6th District) and Bob Gibbs (R-OH 7th District), the U.S. Department of the Interior Office of the Secretary, and the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations and Energy and Mineral Resources, to discuss private property rights of land and mineral owners adjacent to Wayne National Forest parcels.

According to Medina County resident Becky Clutter, a volunteer board member of NARO Appalachia Chapter and an owner since 2012 of 100 acres in the forest, the group traveled to Washington D.C. to ask the Bureau of Land Management Eastern States Field Office to comply with executive orders and permanent instructions directly from Secretary (Ryan) Zinke to move federal leasing and permitting forward and “stop ongoing obstruction by federal bureaucrats.” They were representing what Clutter said were thousands of private land owners who have been impacted.

“The trip to Washington was amazing because it felt like the legislators were actually listening to us,” Clutter said. “They had no idea how fragmented the forest is.”

Clutter explained that, of the total number of surface acres in the six townships within Wayne National Forest in Monroe County, the forest only owns roughly 10 percent of the total mineral estate in those townships due to the large number of private parcels.

“The Wayne is a scattering of forest parcels mixed in and around privately-owned lands. The forest parcels are not contiguous…the big green areas on most maps depicting the Wayne’s three ranger units does not accurately reflect the sparse nature of forest parcels compared to privately held lands. Additionally, of the actual parcels that the forest owns, private citizens own most of the mineral estate underlying those parcels,” she explained.

The landowners are alleging that since the Center for Biological Diversity sued the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service in May 2017, the leasing of federal minerals has slowed and no permits to drill have been issued.

In addition to the Center for Biological Diversity, the Sierra Club, the Ohio Environmental Council and regional forest activist organization Heartwood, sued the federal agencies in U.S. District Court in Columbus for their failure to analyze impacts to public health, water, endangered species and the climate before opening 40,000 acres of the Wayne National Forest to fracking in 2016, and prior to leasing 670 acres of those lands to the oil industry in December.

“The Wayne National Forest is home to many species who can’t afford to have their habitat damaged by oil and gas development,” said Nathan Johnson, public lands director with the Ohio Environmental Council. “We need to do all we can to protect wildlife that can’t protect themselves.”

Wendy Park, a litigating attorney involved in the suit for the Center for Biological Diversity, said there is currently a dispute about administrative record and what materials the court is going to consider.

“It’s really hard to tell (how long the litigation will go on); it really depends on the court,” she said.

NARO Appalachia, which represents Ohio, West Virginia, Kentucky and North Carolina, claims that only four lease sales have occurred in the Wayne since 2016.

“All of the lease sales had parcel-specific environmental assessments done which stipulated that no surface disruption from drilling be allowed to occur. All drilling will be done on private property. To date, not a single permit to drill has been issued after these lease sales,” Clutter said. “The situation gets even more convoluted as private landowners are now being told that simply because their private property gets included into a drilling unit that contains federal parcels, their private parcels may now be subject to full NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) review including archeological surveys. We don’t think it’s right for the government to come in to our private property.”

Park said the litigation hasn’t paused any sales and there is no legal injunction stating that the government can’t move forward with leases.

Clutter said the representatives for the land owners will return to D.C. in August to meet with the U.S. Forest Service. She also said she has met with local groups, such as the Marietta OH 9-12 Project, to help spread the word to land owners.

A series of Wayne National Forest Plan Revision public meetings were held in March, April and May and Clutter said she encourages land owners to attend any others that might be scheduled.

“At this time, the Wayne National Forest Plan Revision Team does not have any in-person public meetings scheduled. However the team is hosting monthly conference calls that are open to the public,” according to Kelly Miller, public affairs specialist with the Wayne National Forest. “The monthly conference calls occur at noon on the first Wednesday of each month.”

Members of the public are invited to join by dialing 888-844-9904 and entering access code 2961260#.

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