by David Rickless, Coalition of Alabama Students for the Environment
On Friday, the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service decided to postpone the auction of 42,965 acres of Alabama's Talladega National Forest. The land would have been leased for oil and gas exploration, with potentially devastating effects on local water supplies and ecosystems.
In a joint release, the Forest Service and the BLM said the delay "will allow time for additional engagement with key stakeholders," including local communities. USFS Chief Tom Tidwell said, "Given the importance of this lease sale, we believe it is appropriate to allow for additional public information meetings."
Just a few weeks ago, they didn't believe more public input was appropriate. What changed? For one thing, people living near the Talladega realized what was going on--their public land was being leased for possibly dangerous development, without their permission. Then, importantly, they decided to do something about it.
In other words, we saw two simple elements: education and action. When it became clear that the BLM was making no effort to inform the public, opponents of the lease organized meetings to spread the word. In Heflin, a town of 3,500 near the Talladega, about 200 people turned out for a meeting. Similar meetings were held in surrounding towns, and the local media took notice, bringing the issue even more attention.
Alabamans, in general, are not environmentalists, much less activists. But the threat to a treasured natural resource (and a crucial water supply) touched a nerve, and many people who had never even heard of fracking were eager to take action. Over 7,000 people signed a petition opposing the drilling leases. The state Senate passed a resolution echoing their sentiment, and Representative Mike Rogers asked the BLM to re-open the public comment period. Finally, the Southern Environmental Law Center filed a letter threatening to sue the BLM and the Forest Service under the Endangered Species Act, if the leases went forward.
The feds folded, and lease sales are on hold, for now. The upcoming public meetings--presumably involving government representatives--should give us a powerful chance to voice our dissent. If the BLM tries in good faith to consider local opinion, they will have no choice but to cancel the leases permanently. We just have to make sure they hear us loud and clear.
I really appreciate the support of the Power Shift community. If you've been involved with this type of camaign before, I'd love to see your thoughts and suggestions in the comments. What strategies worked for you?
And, if you have any questions, I'd be happy to answer them the best I can.