Gov. Rendell today signed an executive order protecting Pennsylvania's state forests from any new natural gas development activities that would disturb the surface of these areas and jeopardize fragile ecosystems.
The Governor said a recent and extensive evaluation of the state forest system conducted by the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources over a period of seven months found that any additional leases could endanger the environmental quality and character of these tracts and pose a risk to Pennsylvania's existing certification that it manages its forests in a sustainable manner, which is important for the state's nearly $6 billion forest products industry.
Gov. Rendell added the executive order was necessary now given the state Senate's failure to act on House Bill 2235 (Vitali-D-Delaware), which would have instituted a moratorium on state forest land leases. The legislation passed the House of Representatives with bipartisan support in early May, but was ignored by the Senate.
"Drilling companies' rush to grab private lands across the state has left few areas untouched by this widespread industrial activity," said Gov. Rendell. "We need to protect our un-leased public lands from this rush because they are the most significant tracts of undisturbed forest remaining in the state. The House led the way to protect these lands, but the Senate failed to do so. That's why it's clear we need this executive order.
"Failing to protect these acres will significantly alter the ecological integrity and the wild character of our state forest system. That would devastate our ecotourism industry and jeopardize the green certification upon which the state's forest products industry depends."
Currently, 700,000 acres of Pennsylvania's 2.2 million-acre state forest are available for natural gas extraction. When completely developed over the next 30 years, these leased lands will include about 1,000 well pads and as many as 10,000 wells, which, along with the associated roadways and infrastructure, could disturb as much as 30,000 acres of the land already under lease.
Approximately 1.5 million acres of state forest lands sits atop the natural gas-rich Marcellus Shale formation. The remaining 800,000 acres that have not been made available for natural gas development contain significant environmental, eco-tourism, and recreational values, including:
-- 180,000 acres of high-value ecosystems designated as wild and natural areas;
-- 200,000 acres of old-growth forests;
-- 128,000 acres with sensitive environmental resources (wetlands, riparian areas, threatened and endangered species, steep slopes, unique habitats) and valuable recreational resources (scenic vistas and viewsheds, trails, leased camps);
-- 299,000 acres in remote areas generally inaccessible by motorized vehicles and offering wilderness experiences paralleling those in the western United States;
-- 88,000 acres of highly valued recreational and water resources in the Poconos in close proximity to many residents; and
-- 20,000 acres important to ecotourism in the Laurel Highlands region.
"The moratorium is important to the state's economy because it protects some of our most valuable assets," said Gov. Rendell. "Countless people enjoy our state forests for recreation, which draws tourism dollars into the state, and our lumber industry needs the assurance of knowing we're going to responsibly manage these resources to protect jobs in that industry.
"After I sign this order into effect, it should remain in place. The stewardship of the public's forests demands no less," added the Governor. "We simply cannot risk subjecting these sensitive and high-value tracts to the same kind of environmental accidents and mishaps that have happened on private lands elsewhere in the state because of the drilling industry's poor practices."
The Pennsylvania Environmental Council today applauded Gov. Rendell’s signing of an Executive Order prohibiting additional leasing of State Park or Forest land for oil and gas development.
“The Department of Conservation & Natural Resources, under the leadership of Secretary John Quigley, has done a courageous job of managing mandated leasing of State Forest land over the last two years” said Don Welsh, President and CEO of PEC. “Unfortunately the focus on generating revenue trumped the landmark conservation legacy of our state lands – most of which reflect more than a century of public and private investment and bipartisan effort to restore our natural resources and public places. We have lost sight of that tremendous legacy too soon in the face of budget shortfalls.”
More than 700,000 acres of State Forest land are available for leasing for natural gas development. In fact last year’s state budget included mandated revenue target levels from such leasing, with the majority of the revenues being used to help balance the state’s General Fund.
“Resource development on state lands should be driven by science and sound management, not solely by the need for revenue” commented Welsh.
Today the Governor also called for the General Assembly to meet its pledge to pass a natural gas severance tax in the current legislative session. PEC supports a fair and reasonable severance tax that directs the majority of its revenue to protect and restore the environment, help communities address impacts from escalating extraction activity, and to support the Department of Environmental Protection and Department of Conservation & Natural Resources as they manage natural gas operations.
Said Welsh: “The General Assembly and Governor must meet their commitment in law; the options and opportunities are there if they’re willing to make the effort. They owe it to the citizens of Pennsylvania to do what it takes to see this through.”
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