A few weeks ago the leadership of the Wayne National Forest sent out an invite to every elected official, chamber/economic development group and various industries, and different groups who oppose said activities, asking all to attend a collaboration workshop on a Saturday in Athens on the Ohio University campus. Figuring one of the topics was going to be leasing and development of oil and gas within and around the Wayne, I thought we better be there to participate in the conversation.
The morning of the event begin with a series of power points from folks around the county who had worked on issues in various forests, explaining how they worked to bring a broad group of people together in order to advance a project. It was wonderful to hear how others had figured out a way to work with those who don’t always agree, to make their part of the world a little better.
Then there was lunch. The announcement was made that lunch is on its way (in a fossil fueled car no doubt) and that its $5 a person for pizza and cash would be collected. Issues arose right away as the group was short on change, not everyone had 5 bucks, and some only had credit cards, etc. So I offered, anonymously, to pick up the entire tab (which couldn’t be more than $100) to save the hassle and keep the meeting moving. This created an uproar among the well haters. Suggesting I was going to “buy everyone off” so they will love oil and gas. Then I suggested that we could go halfsies on the pizza together to show a simple, but true, effort towards collaboration. I thought surely, we can agree on that, but that effort was rejected as well.
After lunch is when the day got really interesting. We were to break up into “issue groups” and talk about what we agree on, what we disagree on and how to move forward. There were groups formed to work on park trails with people representing both dirt bikes and horses, others formed about forestry and forest health. There were even groups based on the geographic area of the three units, Athens, Marietta and Ironton.
I joined in with about 10 others in the oil and gas group discussion. We started off in a small corner of the room sitting at tables and chairs and finally moved into the hallway as our group maxed out the space. At this point I came to realize that not everyone had a name tag. As it turns out, not everyone in our section had not been invited, as a group of students decided to participate and the leadership from the Wayne allowed them in. That was the right thing to do. Proving once again the leadership of the Wayne allows public comment as they have had through this entire process. To keep our conversation moving and respectful, someone kept a list of those who wanted to speak and called on each person to make sure each voice was heard. The conversation jumped around a bit to talk about leasing, drilling, chemicals, water usage, production and injection etc. After about an hour, we were told to wrap it up and move back into the main room for group reports. That’s when someone commented that this entire day was a “farce” among other inappropriate (language) comments. While it was hard to find a middle ground with the local activist group, I would not call the day a waste of time. Conversation on current events, like energy, is never a waste of time.
Then as the meeting drew to a close it was time for each group to report on the discussion and next steps. While most groups had something to report such as an accomplishment or at least a road map to an accomplishment our group had two different messages. The first was delivered by a local anti-development activist who proclaimed that, “this meeting was not inclusive, the Wayne leadership had already made up its mind,” this person did not support any oil and gas activity in, around, under, next to, the Wayne and really had nothing positive to say at all. Since each group was given 5 minutes to report and her ranting tirade took 3 minutes, I had 2 minutes left and I was going to take them. I thanked the Wayne for inviting us, I shared my appreciation for those who do not share my viewpoints on energy and I said that there is a long history of oil and gas development in the Wayne and we look forward to working with our community partners on the next stage of exploration and production in southeast Ohio.
Since Saturday, there has been a few local newspaper articles about the event. In reading those pieces the theme that jumps out is that folks assert the leadership of the Wayne does not allow anyone the ability to publicly comment about leasing, drilling etc. but when you go back and read the headlines it reads - A bit of dialogue emerges on Wayne National Forest drilling and this one that shows that they were there - Local residents, students occupy Forest Service meeting over fracking concerns. I was there as well, and plenty of conversation was taking place about the Wayne. Simply because people don’t agree with you does not mean you are not allowed to speak or that you are not being listened to. Anyway, it proved to be an interesting day and provided lively discussions about the many issues and challenges facing the Wayne National Forest in the coming weeks and months.