"I'd like to keep this area as clean and pristine as we can for future generations, and I see this drilling as an infringement upon that," said Sen. Gerald Dial, R-Lineville.
Last week, the Alabama Senate passed a resolution opposing the potential lease of land in the forest for hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.
The resolution comes after much opposition to such leasing from groups such as Wild South, the Southern Environmental Law Center, Friends of the Talladega National Forest and Coosa Riverkeeper. The auction is scheduled for June 14.
The resolution died without action in the house at the end of the regular session, but, Dial said it was important to voice concern about the issue.
"We felt like one of the best ways to send a message to the national forest service was to let them know that the state of Alabama opposed this," said Dial, who sponsored the resolution.
The Southern Environmental Law Center, an environmental advocacy group which keeps watch over the sale of these leases, filed a letter of protest on behalf of the environmental group Wild South and the National Resources Defense Council on April 16.
"Our concerns are that right now there are not strong standards to protect the environment and public health from the multiple impacts of gas drilling and hydraulic fracturing," said Sarah Francisco, a senior attorney at the law center. "We need those strong standards and strong oversights."
One of the issues the law center expressed in its letter of protest is the use of a 2004 U.S. Forest Service land management plan in the decision to lease land.
"We think that study is outdated," Francisco said. "It didn't look at the impact of shale gas drilling and hydraulic fracturing. Also, it did not look at the resources of these partitioned lands for lease."
Additionally, Francisco takes issue with the fact that the plan is not site-specific and that it suggests there is relatively low interest in drilling in the forest.
"It's a relatively new threat to our forests," Fransisco said. "It seems like there is a lot more interest or potential interest now than there was anticipated in 2004."
But according to an emailed statement from the U.S. Forest Service, the leasing of land does not necessarily result in industrial drilling.
"Often, lands that are leased never have oil or gas wells drilled on them during the life of the lease," the statement read. "In these cases the lands are re-evaluated and a new consent decision is made. To date, on the National Forests in Alabama, few wells have been drilled. There is no new information that would suggest that oil or gas deposits underlie the National Forests in Alabama."
The auction, which would result in more than 43,000 acres of forest land being leased to members of the oil and gas industry, would hurt recreational use of the land, said Mark Colinski, Alabama program manager at Wild South.
"It's not an appropriate use of our federal legacy," Colinski said. "These lands are our commons."
Frank Chitwood, a spokesperson for Coosa Riverkeeper, agreed that potential water pollution could affect residents and public recreation. Coosa Riverkeeper is an advocacy organization that looks to preserve and protect water sources related to the Coosa River.
"We're concerned that there's absolutely potential there for the toxic fracking chemicals to contaminate these head-streams," Chitwood said. "Everywhere that creek flows past might be their local fishing hole, might be their local swimming hole."
Francine Hutchinson, a member of the Friends of the Talladega National Forest, helped to organize much of the op-position to the auction in a grassroots way, calling residents and knocking on doors in Heflin and other areas near the forest.
"Most people are responding really well from our viewpoint because they're horrified to find out what's happening in their backyard," she said. "Few people have known about it.”
Hutchinson says the issue is one that could affect the majority of local residents.
"For common people, we can't afford to buy acres and acres of land for country homes and estates," Hutchinson said. "For common people, this is all we have. It's where we swim, hang out and have a good time."
Public health could be at stake also, Chitwood said. In the past, fracking chemicals and byproducts have been linked to well-water pollution, she said.
"They're getting away with poisoning our groundwater," Chitwood said. "This is land that's owned by all of us. But it's being sold so it can be exploited by a few who will be made rich by this at the expense of our public health."
Scott Hughes, spokesperson for the Alabama Department of Environmental Management, said that the department has an extensive system for testing streams and rivers, but most groundwater monitoring is done by public supply systems.
The Bureau of Land Management, which facilitates the sale of minerals underneath the forest's surface, focuses on helping facilitate the growing energy needs of the nation, said Davida Carnahan, public affairs spokeswoman for the bureau.
But many environmentalists do not agree that drilling in the Talladega National Forest will make us more energy independent.
"We get a lot of this justification that we have to do this to eliminate our dependence on foreign oil," Colinski said. "It is so limited and shortsighted and is a rationale that we do not support."
Colinski said Wild South supports a shift to more sustainable energy types, like solar, wind or geothermal power.
"Natural gas is just replacing coal in our domestic market," he said. "It's not replacing a fuel type that we're currently importing. It's just kind of semantics, I guess. It's something people say because they feel like they can get away with it."
Groups such as Wild South are hoping that the Senate's resolution get the attention of the U.S. Congress, along with the Department of Agriculture and the Department of the Interior, which oversee the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management.
"The pressure really needs to come from Washington," Colinski said. "To really hammer out a long-term solution to this problem, it's got to start in Washginton with pressure on these cabinet heads."
There will be a public informational meeting on the possibility of hydraulic fracturing in the Talladega National Forest this Thursday at 6 p.m. The meeting is being hosted by the Jacksonville State University Earth Club and Ethics Club and will be held at Houston Cole Library in Jacksonville.