Forest floor in the old-growth patch called Heart’s Content. Photo by Chris Woodside

In most forests in eastern North America, humans’ imprint has shaped the land beyond even what we can imagine. I have just returned from western Pennsylvania, where I visited the edges of the Allegheny National Forest, the United States’s first oil-boom area starting in 1859.

The Allegheny National Forest is a land where old-growth forests, logging, Wild and Scenic rivers, and oil and gas wells meet. The land has belonged to the people of the United States since 1923–but the energy rights belong to a collection of private deed holders. On 20 sites, each 10 acres, within the 513,000 acres, energy companies are using hydraulic fracturing to extract energy from the Marcellus Shale gas fields, and 14,000 active “shallow wells” extract oil.

I have just returned from the Society of Environmental Journalists’ annual conference where, last Thursday, a group of us visited parts of the Allegheny Forest. Forester Rob Fallon, researcher Michelle Spicer, biology professor Mary Mulcahy, and old-growth forest activist Joan Maloof and outdoors advocate Sean Brady talked about their work in this land around the headwaters of the Allegheny River.

Deer wander in such abundance in Pennsylvania that the saplings and plants they eat thin out and yield to other plants they don’t eat, like ferns. The deer population has reached three to nine times historic levels, Spicer said. Some forests in the northeast have lost 90 percent of their plant diversity. Old growth forest is so rare in the Northeast that the small patch of it here, called Heart’s Content, offers scientists that rare chance to study it. For many decades, shallow oil wells also have operated here. A century ago, this land looked like a moon field. I’m just learning about today’s battles to regulate the oil and gas industry. Court battles last year led to some level of regulation, but not the level of environmental review the federal government wanted.

Writing from Nature

Writing from Nature is a writing workshop in New Hampshire that connects hiking short distances and observation with new ideas. Learn more here

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