Less than a century ago, the land that today is the Talladega National Forest lay in ruins. Its timber had been cut and sold. Its soil had been excessively farmed. Its natural beauty hadn’t been protected. Its wildlife, like its conservation, was largely an afterthought.
Today, the Talladega National Forest is an Alabama wonderland, a gem we enjoy. Recovery efforts whose beginnings date to New Deal programs of the 1930s revived the forest. Trees were planted. Farming ceased. Wildlife was protected. The result is nearly 400,000 acres of mountains, forestland, waterfalls and trails. It must be protected. That brief history lesson is important because leases will be auctioned this month for drilling for oil and natural gas permits in the forest. The Bureau of Land Management, or BLM, has designated 43,000 acres of the forest for this sale. Since the auction’s announcement this spring, an unlikely coalition of activists, environmentalists and politicians has formed to keep oil-and-gas companies from coming into the forest.
Our stance isn’t based on anti-drilling concerns as much as it is our belief in conservation; put simply, Alabama can’t allow oil and gas companies to search for underground energy sources in the Talladega National Forest. The forest has previously been wrecked and restored. In its restored state, it is too valuable to share with those whose interests are not rooted in the forest’s best interests.
Likewise, our message to those in the business of hydraulic fracturing for fossil fuels, or “fracking,” as it is called, is to take heed of the strong reactions the June 14 auction has caused in this community. The forest is a big deal here. Mount Cheaha isn’t a landmark; it’s part of our history. We’re proud to have the forest in our neck of the Alabama woods. Proof rests in the swift response from this area’s politicians. Two Republicans — County Commissioner Tim Hodges and state Rep. Randy Wood — have voiced strong opposition to drilling for fossil fuels in our national forest. U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers was wise to request, in writing, that the BLM delay the auction. Still unanswered — and troublesome — is why some of our representatives were not aware of the impending auction until the story became public. That sort of subterfuge doesn’t help.
What’s more, the energy industries should also familiarize themselves with the recent history of Calhoun County, where concerns of environmental pollution remain strong. We bear the scars of industrial polluters whose quest for profits and easy solutions hurt property and those who lived on it. We lived for decades amid a cache of aging, leaking chemical weapons that the U.S. Army finally destroyed amid much controversy. If not a matter of distrust, it’s at least a matter of skepticism in matters such as this.
For now, we tend to believe officials at the U.S. Forest Service who have told The Star that it’s unlikely that much of the forest would ever be drilled. But we’d add this caveat: the land of the Talladega National Forest has been misused and abused before. That can’t happen again.