Environmental activists chalked it up as a victory when the University of Tennessee failed this month to receive any bids for a natural gas drilling project on an 8,600-acre publicly owned research forest.
The prospect of drilling for natural gas — and the controversial practice to extract it known as fracking — set off intense debate in the state about how best to use public land and resources, particularly in the university's Cumberland Forest.
But Tennessee residents aren't alone in grappling with the issue. It's a debate that is taking place throughout the South and beyond as the nation's natural gas boom spreads and whole new swaths of public land are now eyed as potential energy sources.
"There is growing pressure for all things energy on the public lands," said John Freemuth, a political science professor and public land expert at Boise State University in Idaho.
Freemuth said additional conflicts are only going to arise as oil and gas reserves are discovered in new areas — places not traditionally known for battles over mineral rights.
"There is going to be more of it," he said.
The George Washington National Forest in Virginia, the largest national forest east of the Mississippi, is considering an update to its management plan that would allow some but not all types of drilling. The idea has spurred debate among residents, the natural gas industry and from those maintaining drinking water supplies in the Washington area.
The Talladega National Forest in Alabama allows for natural gas exploration and last year was poised to auction leases on 43,000 acres. The Bureau of Land Management pulled the land off the auction block to allow more public input. Environmental groups are vowing to fight any future sale.
"When it does, we have to mount our resistance," said Mark Kolinski with WildSouth, an environmental group leading a "Kill the Drill" campaign in Talladega.
In December, about 200 acres in the Homochitto National Forest in Mississippi are likely to go up for auction.
On Friday, the Forest Service said natural gas drilling is a well-accepted use on forest land.
Gang also reports for The (Nashville) Tennessean.