Groups document threatened landscapes in the Allegheny National Forest

Left to right, Bill Beliskus (ADP), Paul Burroughs (Audubon), and Bob Keller (LightHawk pilot).

Courtesy LightHawk


By Ryan Talbott and Kelley Tucker

Over the past five years, the rate of drilling in the Allegheny Naional Forest (ANF) has increased 1,000 percent. This year alone, over 2000 new wells were drilled—a dramatic increase from the 202 drilled in 2003.

Determining the extent of the damage caused by this increased drilling is essential if environmental groups are going to protect the ANF’s forests, grasslands, waterways, and wildlife habitats. But assessing damage from the ground is nearly impossible, which is why the Allegheny Defense Project and the Presque Isle Audubon Society recently partnered with LightHawk, a nonprofit organization that helps address environmental problems using an aerial perspective.

On August 11, 2007, LightHawk volunteer pilot Bob Keller flew members of both environmental groups high above the forest, giving them a clear view and the opportunity to photograph and document the effects of oil and gas development on the ANF’s five most threatened landscapes: Salmon Creek, Longhouse National Scenic Byway, the Westline, and the Sackett and Rocky Gap ATV trail areas. This aerial perspective allowed passengers to take narrow snapshots of key sites and see a wider view of the sprawling, four-county network of roadways, stone pits, tank farms, and related clear-cuts that are fragmenting the forest.

OMG tank farm from the air

Courtesy Ryan Talbot

The flight also revealed that oil and gas drilling is degrading not only the scenery of the Allegheny, but its soils, water quality and wildlife habitat as well. It also showed that new oil and gas drilling around the Windy City area is causing extensive forest fragmentation near the Tionesta Scenic and Research Natural Areas, the largest old growth forest in Pennsylvania, and an Important Bird Area listed by Pennsylvania Audubon. Asdrilling levels increase, areas such as the Tionesta old growth forest are becoming isolated islands.

LightHawk and its conservation partners are finding an increasing fragmentation of forests, grasslands, and waterways throughout the country. The ANF photos, along with photos from other LightHawk flights, clearly demonstrate the importance of preserving designated natural areas like the Allegheny National Forest. By flying hundreds of environmental partners annually throughout Central and North America, LightHawk contributes to environmental research, monitoring, awareness, and education. Its flights have made significant environmental gains possible and are particularly effective in informing public debate on oil and gas development.

Minard Run Oil Company's oil & natural gas storage facility in the headwater wetlands of Brothwell Run.

Courtesy Bill Belitskus


Although the Forest Service agrees that the scenic integrity of these ecologically rich public lands is threatened by oil and gas drilling, it has not used its extensive legal authority to exert more control over how oil and gas development occurs on them. Nor has it made use of the Pennsylvania Oil and Gas Act, which authorizes the Forest Service to file objections to the locations of proposed wells with the Department of Environmental Protection. Additionally, Forest Service regulations state that roads and infrastructure for carrying on private mineral operations “shall be located as approved by the Forest officer in charge,” which clearly establishes that despite the fact that the Forest Service owns just 7 percent of the mineral rights underlying the Allegheny, it has influence over where and how oil and gas development takes place on the surface of these federally-controlled lands.

The Allegheny National Forest is at a crossroads. The photos from the flight make this painfully obvious and supply the Forest Service with documentation to move planning oil and gas development from unbridled access to a watershed restoration perspective.  Please contact the Forest Service and tell them that oil and gas companies must not be allowed to overrun the Allegheny, Pennsylvania’s only national forest.

The photographs taken during this flight speak for themselves. To see more of them, go to ADP’s website at

Ryan Talbott is the Forest Watch Coordinator for the Allegheny Defense Project. Kelley Tucker is the Eastern Region Program Manager for LightHawk.

Published November 2007