Forest Service Quietly Revises Closure Order: Further Restricts Public Access Around Work Areas for Proposed Mountain Valley Pipeline

Wild Virginia has learned, through a March 24, 2018 email from Forest Supervisor Joby Timm of the George Washington and Jefferson National Forests, that the U.S. Forest Service issued two revised Emergency Closure Orders for areas of the Jefferson National Forest, covering two roads and the proposed path of the Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP). New versions of the original Order from March 7, 2018 were issued on March 10 and March 19, 2018. The Forest Service did not issue news releases to alert the public to these revised Orders and has not yet posted alerts about the revisions on its web site.

The latest version of the Order (Order Number 08-08-11-18-03, Revised Mountain Valley Pipeline Project Emergency Closure) prohibits public access to specified roads and portions of the Jefferson National Forest for more than one year, until March 31, 2019. This reverses a part of the original Order that banned the presence of motor vehicles on road sections “where construction associated with pipeline activity is occurring and when closed by a sign, gate, or barricade.”

The March 7 Order was unclear as to the time period for closure of lands in and adjacent to the pipeline right-of-way. The current version defines an exclusion zone stretching 200 feet on either side of the center line for the pipeline in areas where tree cutting has not yet occurred. In areas where a “disturbance corridor” has already been cut through the Forest, the public may not approach within 100 feet on either side of the approved right-of-way, which itself will be 125 feet wide in most areas.

The stated purpose of the Order is to ensure public safety during construction activities related to the MVP but this prohibition on the use of roads and substantial areas on the Forest for more than a year, even during periods when no work is occurring, is not justified by safety concerns. As stated in a March 12 letter in which Wild Virginia sought clarification of the original Closure Order, “it is vital that the public retain the right to visit and use all portions of our public lands to the greatest extent possible, consistent with safety concerns.”

David Sligh, Wild Virginia’s Conservation Director stated: “the Forest Service has allowed a new assault on the public’s rights and interests in our precious lands and waters. First, the agency conceded to industry pressure and granted the pipeline builders the right to destroy public resources for profit. Now it bans us from using sections of the forests and streams it is supposed to hold in trust for us, attempting to justify the act with invalid claims about safety.”

In addition, Sligh said, “the Forest Service revised the Closure Order, not once but twice in a short period, but made no attempt to let the public know that new rules applied and what they were. We have to ask why such an important decision that affects all who wish to use the Jefferson National Forest was made in secret. Anyone who was not scouring Forest Service documents would have had no notice that they were violating the law during the last week.”