Mohican Forest is the largest mature forest in north-central Ohio. Nestled in the accordion-pleated hills of southern Ashland County, its 4,500 acres shelter both tracts of pine trees planted in the 1930s and old-growth native forest with stands of rare white pine more than 250 years old. This vast canopy of trees is one reason why three million Ohioans visit the area each year. So Steve McKee is appalled as we walk into a 50-foot wide clearing - barren even of tree stumps - that snakes up and down the steep hills as far as the eye can see.
Steve McKee: This was all like you see over here, this pine plantation. There was a little trail that wandered past their outdoor amphitheater which was deep in the woods and then back to Hemlock Falls.
But the little trail is gone. And the amphitheater of the Mohican School of the Outdoors here just outside the state forest looks now not upon towering pines, but a sea of churned-up mud. In April, Columbia Gas Transmission Company came in to cut back growth along a natural gas pipeline that runs across this private land. McKee, who's director of the neighboring Richland County Park District, worries that trees along 13 miles of pipelines and wellheads inside the Mohican Forest will get the same treatment.
Steve McKee: They've cleared huge openings, trees that wouldn't even make it halfway to the well if they fell. Certain species just require 500 acres of contiguous forest in order to breed and reproduce successfully. So if that's fragmented... by these huge pipeline openings, that would threaten some of these species that are at Mohican.
McKee isn't the only one concerned. Groups like the Audubon Society, Sierra Club, the Ohio Environmental Council and the Buckeye Forest Council are also protesting the gas company's plan for cutting back trees along its pipeline corridors. They cite worries like erosion along the flood-prone Clear Fork River and the invasion of non-native species into large forest openings. Some kinds of forest recreation are also threatened. Here on a bridal path for horseback riding, Columbia Gas has dumped crushed rock to make an all-weather access road to a wellhead. Mike Gerard, head of the Ohio Horseman's Council which maintains 22 miles of horse trails through the forest, says the rock has made the path unusable.
Mike Gerard: If you take your horses down, even with shoes on, they end up getting jagged stones and stone bruises in the shoes and stuff like that, so people tended to go beside it and that caused further erosion in the process.
The Ohio Department of Natural Resources, the state's steward of Mohican, concedes the gas company has the right to maintain access to its pipeline in the interests of public safety and to keep natural gas flowing to customers. But spokesperson Jane Beathard says the state is not happy about the extent to which the company wants to enlarge its forest access.
Jane Beathard: We are concerned that they continue to assert their right to maintain a 50-foot right of way around the pipelines. We believe this is excessive and historically, we have called for a 20-foot right of way.
Beathard says the state is also concerned about the acre-sized clearings Columbia Gas has marked around ten wellheads, twice the size maintained by the company in other state forests. Columbia spokesperson Kelly Merritt says it's federal oversight that's behind the larger clearings.
Kelly Merritt: Under increasingly stringent federal safety standards and enforcement by the U.S. Department of Transportation we are going along a path to making a 50-foot right of way where we have those rights to do it.
Officials at the DOT, which oversees maintenance of natural gas transmission, confirms that since passage of the Pipeline Safety Improvement Act in 2002 the federal government has been cracking down on utilities. But the DOT sets no specific guidelines for how companies should maintain their lines. Lawyers at Ohio's Department of Natural Resources and the Attorney General's office are now combing through scores of natural gas leases to determine exactly what rights Columbia Gas has. In the meantime Jane Beathard says the state is hoping a large turnout at a public meeting tonight at the Mohican Lodge will encourage the utility to soften its position.
Jane Beathard: We obviously still want to negotiate, we want to continue our relationship with them, we still want to talk to them. But we are as firm on our position as they are.
Columbia Gas Transmission Company has so far only marked the trees in Mohican Forest it wants to remove. But the company plans to begin clearing in earnest this November. Karen Schaefer, 90.3.