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Restoring the Allegheny Wild!

Unless you are a Bush Administration policy analyst, you likely know that the northeastern United States receives a tremendous amount of air pollution from the industrialized Ohio and Tennessee River valleys. Coal-burning power plants and millions of automobiles daily belch tons of pollutants into the atmosphere that eventually finds its way here. The forests of the Allegheny Plateau are severely affected through the loss of essential elements and the interruption of photosynthetic processes. These factors are contributing to the decline of a number of tree and plant species while extractive operations such as logging exacerbate the situation further.

Acid Rain

"Soils on ridge tops in the unglaciated Allegheny Plateau and the Ridge and Valley Provinces of Pennsylvania have concentrations of plant available aluminum detrimental to forest growth...[s]oil acidification is accelerated by acidic deposition. Soil acidification in many areas of Pennsylvania has reached the point where trees are stressed and subsequently die and where leached aluminum has extirpated entire fish populations from the state's most pristine headwater streams." (The Effects of Acidic Deposition on Pennsylvania’s Forests: Penn State University 1999)

The Allegheny National Forest receives some of the most acidic rain in the country. Rain has been measured in Kane on the eastern boundary of the Allegheny National Forest at only a pH of 3.2. This is well over 500 times more acidic than natural rain. As the rain continues to fall, the soil loses its ability to buffer the effects of the acidity and the result is the leaching of essential elements such as magnesium and calcium. As more elements are leached, trees and other vegetation suffer the consequences.

Sugar maple by far has been the most affected tree species. Some areas have experienced a 60% decline in sugar maple. Other species are sure to be affected in the future as the soil continues to lose its buffering capacity. It has been documented that activities such as logging, road construction and herbicide spraying add to the deleterious effects of acid precipitation through erosion and further export of essential elements.

Ground Level Ozone

"...[w]hen conditions are right, we see widespread leaf injury due to ozone, particularly on sensitive species like black cherry." (Can Trees Afford to Stay Outside? Penn State 2000)

Ozone naturally occurs in the stratosphere where it filters harmful ultraviolet radiation from the sun making life on earth possible. Tropospheric, or ground level, ozone is produced as a result of incomplete fuel combustion. The Allegheny Plateau is subjected to very high concentrations of ground level ozone.

Our cities are best known for problems with ground level ozone, where it is more commonly referred to as smog. However, air is obviously not static and the pollution that originates in urban areas from industrial development and automobiles is transported away from its source to other locales.

This is how the Allegheny is impacted, though there are local sources that contribute to this problem, such as the refinery in Warren owned by United Refining Company. How ground level ozone impacts our forests is fairly well documented. Trees breathe through stomates, pore-like openings in their leaves. As the tree breathes, it unwittingly takes in our pollution. Impacts then depend upon the amount and type of pollution to which the tree is exposed.

Penn State has documented that ground level ozone greatly impacts black cherry trees. This could explain why many black cherry trees often have thinning crowns. Stress associated with ground level ozone would inhibit the growth of the tree, causing reduced crowns that allow excessive sunlight to penetrate the canopy. Also, it has been found that seedlings are much more impacted by ground level ozone than older trees. This is because younger trees have a higher rate of gas exchange. Essentially, logged forests are facing increased stress to recover due to ground level ozone, as well as other pollutants.

Resource Extraction

The emphasis on resource extraction in the Allegheny over the past several decades has led to one of the highest road densities of any national forest. In some areas, particularly areas of intense oil and gas development, road densities approach that of small cities - right in the middle of the forest. This seriously degrades habitat for wildlife dependent upon unfragmented mature forests. Furthermore, recreation opportunities are severely impacted in areas such as this, as the Forest Service recently reported:

"In the last few years, the number of new oil and gas wells being built on an annual basis has been increasing...The value of the land to provide recreation opportunities is diminshed in intensively developed oil fields. The land is crisscrossed with roads, which are confusing to navigate and usually not open to public travel. The sounds of vehicles, pump engines and heavy equipment are common and pervasive. Trail systems that traverse these fields are interrupted by frequent road crossings. Some trails may be converted to roads when the trail is located in an appropriate location for road building...Some of the developed oil fields cover thousands of acres. The inherent character of the landscape is converted to an industrial atmosphere in the midst of the forest." (USDA Forest Service: Roads Analysis Report, 2003)

Allegheny Wild! Solutions

The Forest Service must incorporate goals and objectives that address the impacts to the Allegheny National Forest from air pollution and resource extraction and set specific standards and guidelines for protecting and restoring habitats.

Under Allegheny Wild!, ending the commercial logging program would eliminate a major compounding effect of soil acidification. This would in essence "buy time" to develop a strategic plan to restore degraded habitat while protecting other areas from further impacts. With the commercial logging program ended, so to would be the widespread use of herbicides and need for additional road construction. This would further contribute to the conservation of soils.

It is well documented how logging and other extractive activities lead to the depletion of soil nutrients and the degradation of wildlife habitat. The latest issue of Bioscience listed logging as a factor contributing to the nitrification of soils in the northeastern United States. Nitrification is the process by which soils become 'loaded' with nitrogen as other essential elements are depleted. This also accelerates soil acidification .

A plan must be developed to counter the very real impacts of resource extraction to our forests. Ending logging, road building and herbicide spraying is the first step. There also must be a move to significantly reduce the road network and improve eroded stream banks. Road obliteration and stream restoration would provide jobs for local residents while reducing the effects of anthropogenic pollutants.

Allegheny Wild! Restoration Areas

Decline Restoration Areas

These are several scattered areas which have been most affected by air pollution. Sugar maple (from acid precipitation) and American beech (beech bark disease) are important native hardwood species that are declining in large numbers. Black cherry is another tree species susceptible to air pollution. Efforts in these areas will focus on the restoration of forest soils as a means towards protecting tree health.

Extraction Restoration Areas

These areas have been impacted either by logging, oil and gas drilling, road construction, surface mining or a combination of these activities. Restoration activities would include road obliteration, stream restoration, and restoring well-sites and surface mines through the planting of native species.

Grunder Run Restoration Area

This area has been devastated by rampant oil and gas drilling and a poorly maintained ATV trail. Pollution related to the oil and gas drilling has degraded Grunder Run to the point where it no longer supports healthy populations of wild trout. Restoration of water quality in Grunder Run, as part of the upper Allegheny River watershed, is important.

Highland-Sackett Restoration Area

This is the largest oil and gas development in the Allegheny National Forest. The road density is similar to that of Warren, the largest city in the Allegheny region (see above photo.) There has also been extensive logging activity in this area and there are many years of work to be done to restore this area to anything that resembles a natural forest ecosystem.

Salmon-Tionesta Restoration Area

This area is on pace to become the next Highland-Sackett development. There are at least 600 wells within an expanding development led by Pennsylvania General Energy. The fragmentation of this once pristine area of the Allegheny is a testimony to the Forest Service’s irresponsible mismanagement of our forest. The opportunity exists to cease the current rate of development before more of this valuable area is lost in a patchwork of new roads and wells. A Pennsylvania agency has already documented degradation of water quality in Salmon Creek and its tributaries.

Westline Restoration Area

This is yet another area that has experienced a sharp increase in oil and gas drilling activity. A cross-country ski trail has been impacted here and more impacts are sure to occur unless action is taken to stop the degradation. Several oil and gas companies are active in the area.

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