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BIRMINGHAM, Alabama (Reuters) - The U.S. Forest Service said on Friday it is delaying a controversial auction of energy exploration leases in the Talladega National Forest after protests by environmental groups and local officials.
Environmentalists worry that the proposed June 14 lease of 43,000 acres of already depleted forest land popular with hikers and nature watchers could open the door to oil and gas companies eager to exploit the area with the latest hydraulic fracking technology.
The forest trails of the Talladega National Forest contain depleted longleaf pine habitat, home to rare and endangered species such as the Red Cockaded Woodpecker.
In 2009, the LongLeaf Alliance received $2 million in American Recovery and Restoration Act monies to restore the longleaf habitat, which once stretched across 90 million acres of the southeastern United States, according to the group's research coordinator, Mark Hainds.
U.S. Representative Mike Rogers, who represents the affected area in east Alabama, had asked the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to delay the sale of leases and reopen public discussion, saying local officials had not been properly informed of the plan.
The Southern Environmental Law Center, representing the National Resources Defense Council and Wild South, also announced it would sue the government under the Endangered Species Act if the leases went through.
"The Endangered Species Act trumps other uses," said Mark Bailey, a biologist with Conservation Southeast, who specializes in longleaf habitat species.
The leasing delay is to allow time for additional engagement with local communities and residents, according to a statement on Friday afternoon by the U.S. Forest Service.
"Given the importance of this lease sale, we believe it is appropriate to allow for additional public informational meetings," said U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell.
"The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) supports President Obama's 'all-of-the-above' energy strategy, which is a comprehensive effort to boost the safe and responsible production of all available domestic sources," Acting BLM Director Mike Pool said.
"As we continue to offer millions of acres of America's public lands for oil and gas development, it is critical that the public have full confidence that oil and gas leasing is occurring in the right place at the right time in the right way."
The fracking process liberates natural gas from underground shale rock deposits by pumping thousands of gallons of water, sand and chemicals under high pressure.
"Fracking needs a lot of ground surface plus roads and pipeline right-of-way that is destructive to the forest," said Janice Barrett, outreach coordinator for Wild South.
More than 3,600 people out of the 15,000 living in nearby Cleburne County signed petitions against the fracking proposal, according to Anna Berry, the mayor of Heflin, Alabama, population 3,500. A city resolution strongly opposes the drilling as the watershed for city drinking water backs up to the Talladega forest.
"We couldn't take a chance on our water supply," Berry said.
Heflin is nestled close to the forest, which is soon expected to be a destination for Appalachian Trail hikers when the historic trail extends into Alabama. Thousands of people annually use the forest, according to Berry.
Proponents of fracking say the process is environmentally harmless, with a near-perfect safety record. With groundwater lying 200 feet below ground, the wells reach down as far as 7,000 feet, well below any potential danger, according to Steve Everley, spokesman for Energy In Depth, research arm of the Independent Petroleum Association of America.
"Claims it will damage water are not based on evidence, not based on facts and not based on science," he said.
While regulators are arguing over demands to disclose the chemical composition of the ingredients of the fracking process, industry advocates say only 0.5 percent of the pumping mix is chemical, and not of a highly toxic nature, Everley said.
Fracking has been on the American landscape since 1947, with few complaints, he added.
In neighboring St. Clair County, fracking has been used without incident for years, according to Dennis Lathem, executive director of the Coalbed Methane Association of Alabama. "There has not been one single incident of water contamination from fracking in Alabama," he said.
Environmentalists, who worry about the huge amount of water used in hydrolytic fracking, disagree. Pointing to the volume and pressure, they say water tables suffer.
Number one in the nation in aquatic biodiversity, Alabama is home to a large number of endangered aquatic species, many of them downstream from the proposed leases.
According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 60 percent of the mussels and 42 percent of the snails in the United States live in Alabama, with 48 listed as endangered.
Industry officials doubt that Alabama's forests will attract great fracking interest. The financial failure of a fracking enterprise in similar shale in St. Clair County makes it unlikely there would be a rush to tap into the Talladega, Lathem said.
"I don't see any enthusiasm for leasing it," he said.
No one has come forward with a leasing request so far, Linda Brett, spokeswoman for the U.S. Forest Service, said. The Bureau of Land Management, which serves as the leasing agent for the mineral rights of federal land, is simply following the national priority to develop domestic energy sources.
Editing by David Adams and Dale Hudson