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Groups debate Allegheny National Forest protection

| Sunday, Dec. 16, 2007

If a tree dies in the woods, should it be left to rot naturally or should it be harvested and another tree planted in its place?

The question is the crux of an argument over whether to increase wilderness acreage in Allegheny National Forest.

A grassroots group in Northeastern Pennsylvania is asking that 54,460 acres, or 11 percent of Pennsylvania's only national forest, be congressionally designated as wilderness, meaning it can't be logged and can only be used for passive recreation.

The proposal upsets other groups in the area, where timbering is a major industry, who feel the designation would permanently "lock down" land that could provide future economic benefits.

U.S. Rep. John Peterson, a Venango County Republican who has drawn more than $131,000 in campaign donations from the forestry industry since his election to the House in 1996, says constituents are lobbying him as the debate heats up again.

Although he hopes for a compromise, he wouldn't place a timetable on concluding the six-year debate.

"I represent the best hardwood forest in America, and so it's a major industry," Peterson said. The forestry industry is "a part of my district and I understand their issues and so they support me (financially).

"But my decision to cut down a tree isn't made by them."

Wilderness areas must meet various guidelines regarding their distance from roads and buildings. Logging and the use of motorized vehicles are prohibited. Such restrictions prevent large-scale plantings or other management of the forest. They can be used for passive recreation, such as bird-watching, hunting, canoeing and hiking.

Peterson said he is trying to strike a balance between the Friends of Allegheny Wilderness's request that eight tracts of the forest be designated wilderness and the Allegheny Forest Alliance's desire to have no more of the forest become wilderness.

Both groups claim to have the endorsement of dozens of organizations, ranging from watershed councils to loggers.

Because a wilderness designation requires an act of Congress, the final say on which areas of the forest are considered for wilderness essentially rests with Peterson.

A proclamation 75 years ago by President Calvin Coolidge established the Allegheny National Forest in Warren, McKean, Forest and Elk counties. At the time, the forest was hardly wooded. Forty years of clear-cut logging changed it from an old-growth forest of Eastern hemlock and American beech to rolling hills of sun-loving cherry and oak saplings that locals jokingly called the "Allegheny brush patch."

Now the brush patch has grown into a valuable hardwood forest through which the Allegheny River runs as it courses from New York to Pittsburgh.

At least eight bald eagle nests are perched high in the forest. Black bears and whitetail deer wander below. Fishers and river otters swim in the Allegheny, and endangered northern riffleshell and clubshell mussels burrow into the riverbed.

Six years ago, Kirk Johnson, who played in the forest as a child, founded Friends of Allegheny Wilderness to identify areas that could qualify for wilderness status. In 2003, the organization proposed 54,460 acres for wilderness.

In March, the U.S. Forest Service recommended that two tracts called Chestnut Ridge and Minister Valley, totalling 6,600 acres, be designated wilderness -- less than 1/8th of what Johnson's group proposed.

Kathleen Morse, supervisor of the Allegheny National Forest when the recommendation was made, said the biggest impediment is that the Forest Service doesn't own subsurface rights. That means companies could chop down trees, build roads and drill into any area to reach the oil and gas they own, regardless of whether it is designated wilderness.

"We can't mislead the public by pretending this will stay pristine, because it won't," Morse said. "Five hundred wells are going in. The entire area is being changed."

That could be stopped, Johnson said, pointing out the forest's 8,663-acre Hickory Creek wilderness.

When Hickory Creek was designated wilderness in the 1980s, the legislation included using taxpayer money to purchase the subsurface rights. The Western Pennsylvania Conservancy bought the oil, gas and mineral rights -- after years of negotiations -- and then resold them to the Forest Service.

The conservancy could do it again, said Jacquelyn Bonomo, vice president in charge of conservation programs for the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy.

"The bottom line is that oil and gas and mineral rights need to be secured under wilderness areas," Bonomo said. "If the Allegheny National Forest requests Western Pennsylvania Conservancy to do this work, we would absolutely facilitate the acquisition."

But in the days of nearly $100-a-barrel oil, Jack Hedlund, executive director of the Allegheny Forest Alliance, doubts it would work.

"Refinery profits are up 34 percent from last year," said Hedlund of Kane in McKean County. "You aren't going to have people all of a sudden selling off their private rights to anybody."

Furthermore, Hedlund argues, designating the land as wilderness limits what future generations could do with it. He has lived near the forest for almost 65 years and his father worked in the lumber business.

"I'm not excited about the fact that somebody is making a decision for my grandchildren," said Hedlund, a retired Kane Area School District superintendent. "Making it wilderness limits what potential man may have for it. I think the flexibility ought to remain."

That is not the point of the national forest designation, Johnson said.

"It is a national forest. It belongs to all Americans," Johnson said. "It's not a municipal forest, it's not a county forest, it's not even a state forest. It belongs to all Americans equally. There is a real myth that some people adhere to in this region that says that it's their forest, when it is a national forest."

The Multiple-Use Sustained Yield Act of 1960 directs that national forests be managed for many uses -- and not necessarily in ways that yield the highest financial returns.

Spencer Phillips, senior economist for the Wilderness Society, recently analyzed the Forest Service's plan for the Allegheny National Forest, which manages logging to keep it sustainable. He concluded that if all of the proposed 54,460 acres were designated wilderness, it would subtract less than 3 percent of the trees available for the timber industry.

Citing studies done in other eastern wilderness areas, Phillips said if the proposed areas in the Allegheny National Forest gain wilderness designation, they could attract enough visitors to support 100 new jobs, increase property values and provide $152 an acre in environmental benefits, such as watershed protection.

Still, Mother Nature might not be the best steward of land already disturbed by people, said Susan Stout, research project leader for the Forest Service's Northern Research Station in Warren County.

"We've turned loose global climate change, we've turned loose acid (rain), we've turned loose either too high or too low levels of deer, we've turned loose exotic and invasive species," Stout said. "So, from a scientific point of view, we also need to be looking at how we can manage all these forces we've set loose, to sustain the things that people value about forests."

In non-wilderness areas, the Forest Service can thin trees to give another generation a chance to grow, plant a variety of native trees to encourage more diversity and try to avoid a sudden die-off when trees that sprung up after the clear-cutting near their life-expectancy, Stout said.

Such action couldn't be taken in wilderness areas, where trees can't be cut and replaced by large truckloads of saplings brought in for planting.

Jo and Ron Simonsen of Warren reared three children on the outskirts of the forest and own 100 acres from which they have harvested and sold wood. In the past year, they have been vocal supporters of Friends of Allegheny Wilderness's proposal, and Ron Simonsen became board president.

"I think people get the wrong idea about people who want wilderness," said Jo Simonsen. "They think we're all tree-huggers, and that isn't true. We just believe that the forest is for everyone."


Allegheny National Forest, by the numbers

513,257: Acres owned by the U.S. Forest Service

9,031: Acres designated wilderness

2: Percent of forest congressionally designated as wilderness (compared to 18 percent nationwide)

54,460: Acres proposed for wilderness by Friends of Allegheny Wilderness

12: Percent that would be wilderness if all the proposed areas were designated

7,011: Acres harvested annually

77: Percent that is roughly the same age, about 80 years old

Sources: Friends of Allegheny Wilderness, Allegheny Forest Alliance and U.S. Forest Service Additional Information:

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