A federal judge blocked new oil and gas leasing and fracking in Ohio’s Wayne National Forest, a popular destination for outdoor recreation and the only National Forest located in the vast state.

Wayne National Forest Ohio – Credit: Taylor McKinnon / Center for Biological Diversityfos

The ruling rebuked the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) for failing to consider threats to public health, endangered species, and watersheds before opening more than 40,000 acres of the forest to fracking last year.

Pending completion of new environmental reviews, the March 9 order blocks new leases, prohibits new drilling permits and surface disturbance on existing leases, and prohibits water withdrawals from the Little Muskingum River for already-approved drilling.

“This is great news for the future of Ohio’s only national forest,” said Taylor McKinnon, a senior campaigner at the Center for Biological Diversity. “We’re grateful the judge recognized the damage fracking could do to this spectacular forest. The order will protect our climate, endangered wildlife and drinking water for millions of people.”

U.S. District Judge Michael Watson said the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management had “demonstrated a disregard for the different types of impacts caused by fracking in the Forest. The agencies made decisions premised on a faulty foundation.”

“This is a victory for public health (and) outdoor recreation,” said Nathan Johnson, public lands director for the Ohio Environmental Council. “The Wayne is a public forest that we all own. Keeping its air and water clean, as well as its views intact, is a win that we can all celebrate.”

In May 2017 conservation groups sued the agencies over plans to permit fracking in the Wayne, saying federal officials had relied on an outdated plan and ignored significant environmental threats before approving the fracking.

The BLM’s leasing plan would industrialize Ohio’s only national forest through road-building, well pads and gas lines, the lawsuit said. This would destroy Indiana bat habitat, pollute watersheds and water supplies that support millions of people, and endanger other federally protected species in the area.

The Wayne National Forest is a patchwork of public land that covers over a quarter million acres of Appalachian foothills in southeastern Ohio, and much of the property is former coal-mining lands, where restoration has already been done to restore water quality and mitigate toxic minerals that seeped into lakes and rivers from the mines.

Currently, privately owned oil and natural gas rights underlie around 59% of the forest land, totaling about 144,103 acres. The USDA Forest Service is the managing agency when it comes to mineral leases, and, as of November 2018, there were 1,272 active vertical wells on the Wayne Forest properties—involving both federal and private mineral operations.

The ruling—along with a Biden administration moratorium on new oil and gas leasing on federal public lands—is a big win for conservation groups who fought a three year legal battle to protect the 40,000 acres in question.