Federal officials said late last spring that they were tentatively scheduling an informational meeting concerning the matter in August. But it remains unclear whether any such meeting has occurred, though federal officials have reported that they are still planning a public meeting concerning land leases and drilling in the forest.
Keith Johnston, managing attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, said the meeting may occur this fall. The Law Center, which works to protect the environment in the Southeast, has been tracking the development of the proposed land lease sales in the forest.
“We haven’t received an official word yet but we’ve heard that they’ve moved it to November,” Johnston said.
Attempts to confirm that with Steve Lohr, director of the U.S. Forest Service for Alabama, weren’t successful late last week.
Lohr was a few miles outside of Sylacauga Friday for a work day in the Talladega National Forest. Lohr declined to take a reporter’s phone call; another official said she could not confirm the meeting’s date but added that a media advisory may be issued as soon as this week providing more information.
Members of the community were caught off guard in April when the Bureau of Land Management, an agency that manages public lands in the United States, and the U.S. Forest Service announced that the drilling rights to 43,000 acres of land parcels in the Talladega National Forest were to be auctioned off.
Following protest from environmental groups and local residents – and a letter from U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Saks, asking officials to allow more time for public input – the agencies announced in June that the leases would be postponed. In a press release issued at the time, the agencies said the delay was to “allow for additional public engagement, including public informational meetings.”
Calhoun County Commissioner Tim Hodges has been fielding questions from his constituents about drilling in the forest for months, but he hasn’t been able to offer many answers.
“I haven’t been able to give them a lot of information because I haven’t been able to get a lot of information,” Hodges said.
But it isn’t because he hasn’t tried, Hodges said. Three times he’s attempted to contact federal officials on the matter, and three times he’s been unsuccessful, he said. Federal officials he’s tried to contact, Hodges said, have been unresponsive.
Hodges said he thinks that drilling in the Talladega National Forest, which could involve the controversial hydraulic fracturing method, has the potential to affect his constituents more than residents in other districts in the county. Portions of the forest cover Calhoun County’s District 2, which he represents.
He said residents should have more information sooner about how land lease sales and drilling could affect the forest.
The federal agencies’ websites both acknowledge that a meeting will occur, but as late as Friday, neither provided a date or a location for a public meeting on the matter. Despite reaching out to the federal officials by phone and by email, Hodges has yet to receive a reply, he said.
Environmental advocates and some local residents are concerned about what would happen to the environment if the land leases move forward and if hydraulic fracturing is used.
Hydraulic fracturing is a technique in which millions of gallons of water and chemicals are injected underground to fracture porous rock and release natural gas trapped within. Some believe the technique can have harmful effects on groundwater.
“I know how I feel about it and I know how the people in my district feel about it and I want everyone to know that to me, it’s a major concern and I think we need to do everything we can to not have fracturing,” Hodges said. “That’s going to take the community getting together, but we all have to be on the same page.”
Staff writer Laura Johnson: 256-235-3544. On Twitter @LJohnson_Star.