USFS chief stresses cooperation on subsurface rights

Mineral rights aren’t worth much if you can’t reach what’s in the ground.

On the other hand, preserving the surface land for future use and protecting associated waterways is an integral part of why national forests were established in the first place.

Nobody disputes private owners of mineral rights should be allowed access to their properties, but when the surface land on those properties is part of public lands, the question of balancing private rights and public trust arises.

Finding the proper balance between allowing mineral rights owners access to their properties and protecting the surface land that access travels over has been an ongoing challenge for the United States Forest Service (USFS) for decades.

“We need to provide access to entities to be able to make use of their private property whether it is a mineral holding or whatever,” USFS Chief Thomas Tidwell said during an interview with the Times Observer on Friday. “The key here is for us to be able to work together.”

Despite long-running legal battles over the level of regulatory scrutiny that should be applied to individuals developing their private mineral rights on the Allegheny National Forest before the USFS issues orders to proceed, such as those involved in the Minard Run case, Tidwell maintains developers and the USFS can find a balance that meets the needs of all parties.

“At times we get crosswise on certain issues and we don’t really need to,” Tidwell said. “In those situations, we can just take a step back and really focus on the end result. You need access. We need to provide you access. At the same time, we need to minimize the impact on the environment for all the right reasons.”

Tidwell also maintained leaving the lightest footprint possible is a goal shared by developers and the USFS, and one that can lead to surprising benefits.

“What I’ve found is, most people, they want to minimize impact on the environment where they can,” Tidwell noted. “Often, it’ll also save money in the long run too. By locating a road in a place that it’s going to better situated. It’s going to, maybe, cost less to maintain it in the future versus taking what looks like the shorter route between part A and part B.

“Whether it’s an oil and gas entity or for the Forest Service, it’s still something where we need to find ways to work together, to be able to do it so that we’re responsive. To find ways to grant access so it really comes down to being able to find ways to work together.

“I think that there’s more and more people that feel good about trying to work within that sort of a situation and we need to continue to find ways to create a more collaborative work environment. At the same time we also need to be responsive.”

Tidwell pointed out the USFS is not well suited to respond quickly to changes in activity levels.

“There’s no question that when activities increase and workload increases, we’re not very nimble to be able to increase staffing so it creates problems,” Tidwell noted. “We have, in the last few years, seen the increase in oil and gas activity and access for oil and gas wells. We haven’t been able to add staffing, so we’ve had to move people around and find different ways to do it. It’s not as easy as seeing this activity increasing so we’re going to add more people. We don’t have that flexibility. we’ve got to figure out what other programs we can somehow minimize or postpone other activities to deal with it. That’s our challenge.”