Nature’s calling

May 25, 2008 

There are many topics about which I could write this week, but none has more long-term importance than the possible completion of a back-room land deal that would see more than 1,100 acres of prime wildlife habitat leave public ownership — gone forever.

Of course, I am referring to the deal being engineered by Rep. Mike Hanna to transfer 1,124 acres of Rockview Correctional Facility lands to Penn State and another 400 acres to Benner Township.

Hanna’s bill, which he once called a “done deal,” has languished in committee. House Bill 1657 has not seen the light of day since it was referred to the State Government Committee last year. This is most likely the result of overwhelming opposition to the plan voiced at an October hearing that was held in Pleasant Gap. Hanna’s bill will not move on its own merits. Recently, it was reported that Hanna will seek to attach the bill as an amendment to state Sen. Corman’s Senate Bill 740, a common practice for Harrisburg politics. This bill has already passed the senate.

SB 740 seeks to transfer a 13-acre parcel of Rockview land to Centre County for $1. The bill also authorizes a sale to the highest bidder of three additional sections of Rockview land that are close to the I-99 interchange. It does not address the majority of the excess Rockview property.

At present, we the citizens of Pennsylvania own the Rockview property. Hanna’s bill would “sell” the property to Penn State for a highly undervalued $902 an acre. With public open space at a premium, would the citizens not be better served if the property remained in public hands, thus protected forever? The PA Game Commission has offered the state — us taxpayers — more than twice that amount per acre and, under PGC ownership, the land would stay public. Another option would be ownership by a conservancy, and most of the conservation community’s member groups would find this acceptable.

The need for citizen action is urgent. As reported in the Centre Daily Times, a Hanna-amended SB 740 was supposed to be discussed by the State Government Committee at a May 29 meeting. We learned Friday that the committee discussion regarding SB 740 has been postponed and is now rescheduled for Monday, June 9, in room G-50 of the state Capitol in Harrisburg.

According to Melody Zullinger, executive director for the Pennsylvania Federation of Sportsman’s Clubs, 80 percent of the letters received by the committee have favored the land transfer to Penn State. As further clarified in Friday’s CDT, State Government Committee executive director Rodney Oliver said that about 60 people favor the Hanna legislation, and only four have written in opposition. Oliver was not counting the letters received from conservation organizations. I am also wondering how many of those 60 letters came from ordinary citizens as compared to people connected with the university?

How do these numbers compare with those of local environmentalists, hunters and anglers? The conservation community has been united in their opposition to Hanna’s bill. The Spring Creek Canyon Alliance, comprised of 21 local and state-wide hunter/angler/conservation groups with over 150,000 members, formally requested that the House State Government Committee reject HB 1657.

Good news: Hanna’s bill includes a deed restriction that requires Benner Township to use the land “solely for passive recreational open space for the benefit of the public at large. Should the Grantee attempt to convey the property, or utilize it for any other purpose, the property shall immediately revert to the Grantor.”

A similar deed restriction requires Penn State to use the land “solely for agricultural purposes in the furtherance of the Grantee’s mission of education related to agricultural sciences.” According to the CDT, Hanna’s legislation would also require that Penn State grant a “perpetual conservation easement to ClearWater Conservancy and the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources” within two years. When I read the 49-page bill, I could not locate this clause.

According to Pennsylvania Game Commissioner Russ Schleiden, the PGC has entered into an agreement with PSU to allow hunting to some extent on the property for the next 35 years, should the land transfer take place. The PGC would like to see this extended to 50 or more years. Hanna’s bill would seemingly prevent Penn State or Benner Township from selling the property or using it for purposes other than those stated in the legislation. Memorandums of understanding could permit hunting. I fear that memorandums with PSU could be broken. Whatever legislation provides can be easily changed in a future piece of legislation. I think that we would all agree that Penn State has a strong presence in Harrisburg. With the land in Penn State ownership, I envision the same long-term fate for the Rockview property as that of the Circleville farm previously owned by PSU — being sold to developers.

I have not spoken with Rep. Kerry Benninghoff myself. However, Zullinger said that Benninghoff, a member of the state government committee, has prepared legislation to allow this land to be purchased by the PGC and the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission. It would also provide for a memorandum of understanding between the PGC and Penn State, allowing the university to use appropriate lands for agriculture research while still protecting the precious and sensitive habitats and biological integrity of the canyon and Spring Creek for the benefit of all citizens in perpetuity. Based on Oliver’s comments, it appears that an individual letter will weigh in more than letters from conservation groups. Now would be the time to write committee chairwoman Rep. Babette Josephs, Rep. Benninghoff and the other committee members to let them know that you oppose HB 1657, as well as opposing the attachment of the bill’s contents as an amendment to SB 740. The Rockview land, including the Spring Creek Canyon, should stay in public ownership, preserved for all people to enjoy.

Mark Nale, who lives in the Bald Eagle Valley, is a member of the PA Outdoor Writers Association. He can be reached at MarkAngler@aol.com.

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