An informational meeting Wednesday night about potentially leasing 31,900 acres of mineral rights for oil and gas development on the Wayne National Forest, including a section in northern Athens County, devolved into pro- and anti-drilling advocates chanting at each other and the event being shut down over an hour earlier than scheduled.
“We say no!” the much larger, anti-drilling crowd chanted, with a smaller group countering with chants of, “We want jobs!”
Conducted by the federal Bureau of Land Management, the room in the Athens Community Center was set up with a series of stations with informational handouts, representatives from the BLM in Washington and U.S. Forest Service’s Wayne National Forest to answer questions. Maps were displayed showing the parts of the forest being considered for leasing to private interests for oil and gas exploration and possible drilling.
A photo gallery of the event can be found here.
This was one of three public meetings scheduled to inform the public about the leasing proposal on the 241,000-acre Wayne forest. Each meeting took place in a community near a particular section of the national forest – in Ironton, Marietta and Athens.
The crowd at the Athens open house, which was estimated by police present at the event to be more 200 people, seemed largely surprised to find the open house format and learn that there were going to be no formal testimony or a question-and-answer period.
The meeting began at 6:30 p.m. and shortly after 7 p.m. officials from the BLM and Wayne National Forest began addressing the crowd through an amplification system.
Dean Gettinger, a BLM district manager, explained the meeting was being held to gather input, provide information and answer questions.
“We wanted to educate people as to what our process is we are required to go through by law,” Gettinger said. He ran through some of the steps of that process, saying that after a private entity makes a request to lease, the BLM works with the Wayne to take various steps that lead to a decision to either lease, not lease or do an environmental impact assessment. He said the plan now is to complete three such assessments for the Wayne in different sectors of the scattered national forest, with each one taking six to 12 months.
When Wayne Forest Supervisor Tony Scardina took the microphone, it wasn’t long before the crowd grew restless, with people asking officials to answer questions on the record in front of everyone. Scardina responded that questions would be answered individually.
The anti-drilling people wore T-shirts that said “Don’t spOIL the Wayne” and held up signs reading “no consent.” When Scardina revealed that there would be no question-and-answer period before the whole audience, jeers greeted him.
Anti-fracking people began cheers of “We say no!” while a smaller, pro-development group, wearing green T-shirts that read, “Free our mineral rights,” gathered at another end of the room and began their own chants of “We want jobs!” At that point, anti-fracking individuals near them turned in their direction. This triggered a chanting battle of sorts, back-and-forth, with the two groups moving closer but not making contact.
THE PROPONENTS ARE MAINLY LANDOWNERS who feel that a continued prohibition on oil and gas development on the national forest effectively rules out much of the private property bordering that federal land.
While most of 31,900 acres proposed for mineral rights leasing, 18,800 acres, is located in the Marietta Unit of the Wayne forest, 3,150 acres is located in far northern Athens County and part of Perry County. Around 10,000 acres is located in Lawrence County to the south. The forest boundaries contain 834,000 acres, though actual federally owned land is about 241,000 acres.
By 7:10 the meeting had been taken over by the two groups chanting, and paper airplanes began to fly across the room in the direction of the officials in the corner. The “We say no!” crowd was larger and more consistent, but the “We want jobs!” crowd rallied after a couple minutes.
By 7:15 officials took to the microphone again and warned that if a civil atmosphere could not be maintained, the meeting would be shut down. The crowd quieted briefly but when another chant began to start up several seconds later, the meeting was closed.
Officers from the Athens Police Department, the Athens County Sheriff’s Office and the U.S. Forest Service attended the meeting, which some members of the crowd expressed consternation over the amount of police presence.
When the meeting was shut down, a Forest Service officer attempted to move the crowd toward the exits, eventually pulling his baton and gripping it with both hands to shove at least one person in the crowd along as many declined to leave the room.
Other officers present took a more relaxed approach and didn’t attempt to force anyone to leave but rather let them exit at their own pace. The crowds thinned with people milling about in and out of the room and talking among themselves for at least another 45 minutes after the meeting was shut down.
BLM Deputy State Director of External Affairs Robert Gillcash on Friday called the way the meeting ended “unfortunate,” saying that experts were brought from Washington to answer questions and there was a lost opportunity.
He said that the process for making a final determination on mineral rights in the Wayne could take between two and three years.
Left unsaid, too, is the fact that the Wayne, especially the sections near Athens and Ironton, may not have recoverable oil and gas. So far, the vast majority of deep-shale drilling/fracking in Ohio has been taking place to the north and northeast of Athens County. Washington County, where the Wayne’s Marietta Unit is located, is seeing ample oil and gas development, and the national forest there has been the site of drilling for several decades.
The meeting that took place in Marietta, Tuesday evening, was considerably more amenable to potential national forest drilling than the Athens meeting. The Marietta Times reported that 250 attended the open house, with many of them being landowners interested in leasing their land for oil and gas development.
Gillcash of the BLM said Friday that there is typically some type of law-enforcement presence at such events but that in this case it was the Forest Service’s call to have a number of officers at the meeting.
Wayne National Forest Supervisor Scardina said Friday that the main goal of the meeting was to get information to the public and the first half-hour went well before things went south.
“My reaction was disappointment,” he said. “I respect people being able to voice their concerns and opinions but I want them to be able to do that in a constructive way, and unfortunately that’s not where things ended.”
Scardina said that the Forest Service will look at the environmental impact of leasing on water, wildlife, habitat, native species and recreation. That gets combined with public input and the impact of mineral extraction on the surface of the Wayne. After all of that is evaluated, a decision will be made, he said.
With regard to the police presence, Scardina said it was a joint decision between the Wayne and the BLM. On the specific case of the ranger who used his baton to move the crowd, Scardina declined to comment.
Some of the anti-drilling individuals who attended the meeting raised serious concerns about the Forest Service officer’s behavior.
In a letter to the Wayne National Forest district ranger late Wednesday night, Carl Edward Smith, III demanded that action be taken against the officer.
Smith is president of the Graduate Student Senate at OU, and over the weekend announced his intention to run for the Democratic nomination for the 94th Ohio House District seat being vacated by state Rep. Debbie Phillips, R-Albany. He is running under the name Eddie Smith.
In his letter to the Wayne supervisor, Smith wrote, “There were more than a dozen community members who watched (the Forest Service officer) hit our fellow community members without due cause… I want to make it clear that this is absolutely unacceptable – our community members are empowered and educated and will not be hit by a rogue and aggressive officer without demanding accountability. We are not going to let this go until this officer is placed on administrative leave and an investigation is conducted into this event to determine an appropriate level of disciplinary action.”
Smith wrote that if the officer is not sanctioned and an investigation launched, he and others intend to submit a formal complaint to the U.S. Department of Justice.
– Athens NEWS Editor Terry Smith contributed to this report.