Talladega National Forest. Credit: USDAgov/Flickr

Talladega National Forest in Alabama is a prime destination for recreational hikers and wildlife watchers. It all began in the 1930s, when the federal government purchased an eroded wasteland and helped transform it into a rich forest ecosystem. Today, Talladega National Forest is well-known for its popular hiking trails, used by many visitors and Alabama residents. But despite its successful restoration and popularity among outdoor recreationalists, the forest still faces challenges. Threatened longleaf pine habitat and endangered species like the red-cockaded woodpecker are found in Talladega National Forest. This year, American Forests is working with the National Wild Turkey Foundation to plant 31,000 longleaf pines in Talladega National Forest to help restore the tree species.

Another growing threat for Talladega National Forest is energy development. Last week, the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service announced their plan to auction off leases on the forest’s 43,000 acres of land for oil and gas exploration. If properly managed and in the appropriate spot, this type of energy development can be okay on public lands. But when aggressive efforts interfere with fragile ecosystems and species, it can become a problem.

Red Cockaded Woodpecker on a Longleaf Pine tree. Credit: USFWS Headquarters/Flickr

Opponents of energy development on public lands are weary of the hydraulic fracturing (aka “fracking”) methods that may be used to extract gas and oil. The fracking process involves injecting high volumes of water, sand and chemicals into rock formations in order to break up the rock and allow gas or oil to flow upwards. Fracking is a controversial method for oil and gas extraction because it has been shown to contribute to serious health problems and water pollution, as groups like NRDC point out. Other groups, like the Sportsmen for Responsible Energy Development, are working to strike a balance on public lands and reform oil and gas development.

Like with other fracking plans (Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania and Barnett Shale in Texas), the Talladega announcement was met with protest from local officials, outdoor recreation enthusiasts and other residents. In response, the BLM and U.S. Forest Service recognized the need for public input on the matter and halted the auction, which was set for June 14th. While the auction is suspended for Talladega, the agencies say that they are still pursing energy development in other national forests. In the face of our country’s increasing energy demands and transition to a sustainable energy economy, it’s often tricky to find the right balance for public land use.