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Locals, gas company officials to debate tree removal in state forest

The private and state properties in southern Ashland county combine to form a sort of geographical checkerboard. Multi-acre plots of private land remain completely surrounded by Mohican Memorial State Forest, a 4500-acre nature preserve located about 10 miles south-west of Loudonville. Columbia Gas Transmissions is a West Virginia-based company that supplies products to Columbia Gas of Ohio. The company began pulling natural gas out of area wells in 1939, nearly 20 years before most of the forest became a protected nature preserve.

Columbia ceased drilling some time ago. But they still use at least 56 empty wells and a 14-mile-long maze of underground pipe lines to store gas used to supply much of Northern Ohio. Columbia now says they need to clear about 350 acres of state forest, a move that has many Mohican neighbors concerned.

One of those neighbors is Bowen Carter. Carter has owned property near Mohican all of his adult life. He says his parents moved to the area after his grandfather James Stevenson founded nearby Mohican State Park in 1928. As Carter walks along a trail on the south-east edge of the forest, he gives his thoughts on Columbia's plans.

"I think it's insane," Carter says.

Carter offers several expletives to describe the state's plan. He says he's upset by Columbia's plan to clear so much of the forest because his grandfather founded Mohican to preserve the pristine habitat for future generations.

"You're talking about eliminating little pieces of the eco-system, eliminating the atmosphere where small animals grow," Carter says. "We don't want that. The whole purpose of starting the park was to provide a place for preservation."

Carter says he thinks Columbia is following procedures designed for regions with more wilderness than Ohio, states like as West Virginia and Wyoming. But Columbia spokesman Kelly Merritt says that's not the case.

"We will be removing trees that could pose an eminant hazard," Merritt says.

Merritt says years of natural growth have made tree removal necessary to prevent damaged or dying trees from falling on exposed well heads. He wants to assure park neighbors and tourists the trees can be cut and hauled away without disturbing the environment.

"Once we get our rights-of-way clear, we will install an intergrated vegitation management program, which will help prevent erosion, keep exotic species from growing, promote the growth of fative species, and protect the area for both the natural gas use and the public's use."

Others who live near the forest agree with Merritt. Eight year resident Dave Young rides his mountain bike on Mohican's 32 miles of winding trails at least twice a week. He says he's glad Columbia wants to secure their wells.

"They already have a clearing around them," Young says. "Just enlarge the clearing, give them a little more clearance around their trucks, bring a little more sunlight in, keep all that timber away from the gas. Sounds like a good idea."

The Mohican case seems to be unique in the larger issue of utility companies removing trees to insure operations. Since the wells were installed before the land became protected, Columbia has the legal right to maintain clearance around their wells and pipes without consulting the state. Jane Bethard of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources says how much clearance they need is the point of contention.

"We understand, just from talking with them, that they want to remove somewhere in the equivalent of two football fields worth of trees around each one of these well heads, and there are many well heads," Bethard says. "We think a half-acre clearing around each well head would be suffecient."

Bethard says concerns from her office prompted Columbia to back off the original target date of June 10 to allow time for a town hall meeting later this month. One party expected to attend the meeting is the Ohio Environmental Council. OEC spokesman Jack Shaner says he contacted Columbia about his group's concerns over the project but has not heard back. He says he expects the state to deny Columbia's demands out of principle.

"We sure hope that (the Department of Natural Resources) will stick up for the public's rights; this is public property," Shaner says. "We thinks it is incumbent on the department to look out for the poeple of Ohio. D.N.R. should not be letting this comapany get away with being fast and loose on this and running some expansionist campaign."

Shaner says the environmental council has not filed any formal complaints against Columbia, but they are considering their legal options if the gas company does not reconsider its work plan. That plan will be available to the public at the town hall meeting at the Mohican State Park Lodge on July 25th.