PennFuture Daze: October 11, 2012

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Vol. 14, No. 19 — October 11, 2012 

The last colors of fall

As Pennsylvanians head to the state parks this weekend to see the glorious fall colors, they may not realize this could be the last time they will see the fall foliage in our parks unimpeded.

Our state parks are in the crosshairs of the Corbett administration. The Commonwealth doesn't own the mineral rights beneath about 80 percent of state park land. This is because in many cases when the Commonwealth acquired these lands, the mineral rights had been previously sold or were prohibitively expensive.

So in many cases the Commonwealth acquired only the surface of the land and not the minerals that lie beneath the surface. More than half of our 120 parks — 61 in total — lie atop the Marcellus shale formation, and more lie above other valuable minerals such as limestone.

Until recently, there was little interest in opening up our glorious parks for mineral development. There were plenty of other places across the state to drill and mine, and both the drilling industry and our state government seemed to recognize that opening up our award-winning state parks — the heart of Pennsylvania — was not worth the buzz saw of public disapproval that would accompany such a move.

But things are changing. We now have reason to be concerned that the Corbett administration wants to open up our beautiful gems to mining and drilling.

Our first warning came in late September, when Dr. Paulette Viola resigned from the Conservation and Natural Resources Advisory Council. Dr. Viola is a distinguished and highly regarded professor of Park Resource Management at Slippery Rock University. She has served as an advisor to the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) — the arm of government responsible for protecting and running our state parks, among other roles — for more than 19 years, through both Republican and Democratic administrations. But the current administration's hostility to public input, and systematic dismantling of the public process, led to her resignation.

And while DCNR has been stifling public involvement in how our parks are run, insiders tell us that the leadership there has been conducting closed-door negotiations with extractive industries, despite formal requests from citizens for public hearings and involvement.

Last week, the other shoe dropped, when John Norbeck — the director of state parks, whose leadership earned our parks the National Gold Medal Award for Excellence in Park and Recreation Management — was given the choice of resigning, or being fired. In an interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Norbeck said the Corbett administration forced his resignation because of "'philosophical differences,' including his opposition to commercial timbering, mining and Marcellus Shale gas drilling in the parks." Norbeck also told the reporter of back door meetings with commercial timbering and mining companies who wanted to move operations into state parks. Norbeck also said state park rules clearly prohibit mining on parkland.

We are not alone in seeing bad news ahead for the protection of our state parks. Fox News this week reported on the nation's 10 most endangered state parks, and on the list was one of Pennsylvania's most beautiful and popular — Ohiopyle State Park, with its waterfalls, trails, white water rafting, and more, all of which attract 1 million visitors (and their money) each year. And the reason Fox News cited for Ohiopyle being endangered? The specter of drilling — and the impact of other activities such as increased truck traffic through the park, air and noise pollution, and alterations to the land and water that give this special place life.

Opening up our state parks to industry is not inevitable, but everyone has to speak up. PennFuture's "Don't Drill through the Heart of Pennsylvania" Campaign is organizing citizens to take action to protect our parks and our tourism economy.

We are calling on drillers and miners to be good citizens and help us protect our state parks. We are calling on the legislature to pass new laws that protect the parks. DEP and DCNR should adopt new regulations that ensure no drilling or mining will occur in the parks. We are championing special impact fees where drilling is allowed in parks because the state does not own the mineral rights. Our law staff is ready to go to court, if necessary. And we are asking citizens statewide — and the millions of visitors from other states who enjoy our resources — to demand that the extractive industries pledge to protect our state parks.

With all the land already available for drilling, including public lands such as state forests and game lands, we demand that the Corbett administration stop looking at our parks as cash cows, and keep them out of the development equation. Unless we act now, this could be the last time we see the colors of fall unobstructed.

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