A Philadelphia-based environmental group is crying foul over measures that, in its estimation, would put the Allegheny National Forest at risk.
PennEnvironment released a report on Tuesday, entitled the "Congressional Assault on the Best of America," that berates Congress for considering measures that would strip a wilderness designation and allow for "road building and logging in the most pristine areas within and surrounding the Allegheny National Forest."
"Wilderness designation has been debated for decades," ANF spokeswoman Kathy Mohney said. "Such a designation, under the Wilderness Act of 1964, identifies as wilderness those areas possessing unique scientific and research value or unique opportunities for solitude and wilderness recreation."
"If passed, several bills moving through Congress would open pristine parts of the forest to logging and pave the way for destructive resource extraction like gas drilling. Certain members of Congress want to work over acres of state forest land to make way for gas well," according to PennEnvironment.
Their release levies the charge that "Representative Glenn Thompson (R-5), Lou Barletta (R-11), Mike Kelly (R-3) and other members of Congress seem bent on trashing our treasures, and have launched an assault on the best of Pennsylvania."
But their argument might miss the point.
Thompson is a co-sponsor of H.R. 1581, the Wilderness & Road Release Act. In an opinion piece published in the Centre Daily Times last September and posted on his website, Thompson said that the bill will "allow for greater access to our public lands by releasing acres that have had more restrictions levied upon them as a result of being part of a wilderness designation."
Thompson explained that the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 set aside millions of acres to be studied for possible wilderness designation. Under the law, when a review of each area is completed those lands not suitable for wilderness designation require an act of Congress to return them to their original classification.
"The Bureau of Land Management and United States Forest Service have both recommended that the lands identified in HR 1581 as 'not suitable for wilderness designation.' The bill would therefore return these lands to their original designation with all federal environmental protections intact," Thompson wrote.
PennEnvironment also opposes H.R. 2834, the Wilderness Development Act co-sponsored by Kelly, as a bill that "adds loopholes to the Wilderness Act to allow road building, motorized vehicle use, and logging in areas currently protected as wilderness. Like the Roadless Release Act, this would target vulnerable wilderness areas within the National Forest, which have been set aside by Congress to remain untouched natural settings."
"Cutting down trees and introducing a continuous streak of vehicles would undermine the sanctity of the forest," according to PennEnvironment. "Moreover, H.R. 2834 would also pave the way for gas drilling on national forest land."
The report does not mention that the vast majority of subsurface rights are privately owned.
The text of the bill also indicates its purpose is "not intended to authorize or facilitate commodity development, use or extraction, motorized recreation access or comparable hunting, fishing and trapping activities."
The Allegheny National Forest has approximately 9,000 acres of congressionally-designated wilderness, 8,663 acres that make up the Hickory Creek Wilderness and 368 acres made up of the seven islands dubbed the Allegheny Islands Wilderness.