The sound and beauty of water cascading into a boulder-lined pool on Mine Hole Run, a Class A Wild Trout Stream, was contrasted with the noise of a Marcellus shale drilling rig and gas-related land disturbances almost everywhere one looked. The sad thing is that both of these sights and sounds were occurring on “our” state forest land in the Pine Creek Valley.
Trout Unlimited hosted six members of the outdoor press in Slate Run, Lycoming County on October 5-6. It was part of TU’s media outreach program — to make more people aware of pressing environmental issues. One member of the press attended from New York, one from western Maryland and four, including this writer, were from Pennsylvania. They included newspaper writers and photographers, radio show hosts, bloggers and the publisher of the online Hatch magazine.
Trout Unlimited staff and hosts for the event included national press secretary Erin Mooney, sportsmen organizer Paula Piatt and Eastern Water Project director Katy Dunlap.
The weekend began with a Saturday breakfast slide presentation by Susquehanna Chapter of Tout Unlimited volunteer Walt Nicholson. Nicholson outlined the size and depth of Marcellus shale activity on public land in northcentral Pennsylvania. He praised the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission’s Unassessed Waters Initiative, and discussed the disruptions to hiking on the Midstate Trail, as well as past environmental problems and the threats to wild trout streams associated with Marcellus shale activity.
At one point, Nicholson showed slides of views from Hemlock Mountain in the Tiadaghton State Forest. Looking north or south, you can see miles of the scenic, undeveloped Pine Creek Valley.
“I used to think that all of this beauty was protected for future generations. Now, I know that just isn’t the case,” said Nicholson. “Even the wild and natural areas are only protected by a DCNR (Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources) designation that could be changed at any time by a governor or state legislature trying to balance their books.”
Nicholson suggested that Pennsylvania develop a way to permanently set aside certain special places so that they would never be subject to drilling. Some privately-owned land in the Commonwealth is permanently protected, but oddly enough — no state land.
The first of two weekend tours of Marcellus shale activity on public land began after Nicholson’s program. This was actually my second Marcellus tour. In August of 2010, I was a guest of Range Resources, a Marcellus shale gas company, for a tour of several of their facilities in this very same area. As a result, I have seen this issue from both sides. Nevertheless, the first thing that I observed was that the magnitude of development has changed a lot since 2010.
On the early-October Trout Unlimited tour, Mooney, Piatt and Dunlap led us on some lesser-traveled state forest roads to see for ourselves some of the additional activity within Tiadaghton State Forest. Marcellus development is not just 4 to 10 acre well pads, it is also pipelines, massive water storage facilities, new roads, noisy compressor stations and increased truck traffic. Many miles of once quiet state forest roads are now paralleled by pipelines, with trucks driving back and forth all day and night.
Hunters arrive for a day or two of pursuing their favorite sport in the northwoods only to find well pads, compressor stations, and large water storage facilities where they might have hunted just last year. While some hunters are disturbed by the industrialization of our state forests, others welcome the pipelines because they are usually seeded with a wildlife clover mix. New edge habitat is then created, which is good for deer.
Piatt pointed out that those same pipelines and newly-constructed roads fragment the larger stands of contiguous, unbroken forest that is necessary for some species other than deer.
“What look like good feeding areas for hen turkeys to forage with their poults for insects also become pathways for coyotes and other predators of wild turkeys,” she noted.
God’s Country Chapter of Trout Unlimited volunteer Bob Volkmar, along with Piatt, addressed the group during lunch as the cool waters of Pine Creek flowed by in the background. Volkmar and Piatt explained the role of Trout Unlimited’s Coldwater Conservation Corps — a group of 425 people in Pennsylvania, trained to conduct weekly monitoring of streams for Marcellus shale-related impacts.
Piatt also described the mission of the Sportsmen Alliance for Marcellus Conservation. The Alliance is a coalition of more than 265,000 sportsmen and sportswomen working together to identify and propose solutions to mitigate the impacts caused by Marcellus shale gas drilling to hunting, fishing and other outdoor sporting activities.
Next stop — Slate Run Tackle — where we received an overview of quality trout fishing opportunities by owner Tom Finkbeiner.
“I’m not against drilling,” Finkbeiner said. “But I am for strict enforcement of our environmental laws. If a company is found to have even one intentional violation, I’d say kick them out of the state - sending them back to Texas or Oklahoma or wherever they came from.”
A quick breakfast on Sunday morning was followed by a second tour — this time to an active Anadarko well, a large water-storage lagoon and more disturbed habitat.
“We are in the middle of nowhere and listen to this,” shouted Katy Dunlop over the din of the drilling activity along Limbaugh Road in the Tiadaghton State Forest.
A guard confronted us at the Anadarko well and asked what we were doing there. It seems that some public land is not so public anymore.
Not everything about Marcellus shale exploration and extraction is bad. I came away from the weekend tours, presentations and a little trout fishing with a much better perspective of the magnitude of the development on state forest lands. I also met some very dedicated conservationists who are giving of their time and energy to protect the wildlife resources and outdoor recreational activities available in the northcentral region of Pennsylvania.
This column only scratches the surface of the Marcellus issue. I plan to devote future columns to specific aspects — both good and bad — of Marcellus shale development in the Pennsylvania Wilds.
Mark Nale, who lives in the Bald Eagle Valley, is president of the Pennsylvania Outdoor Writers Association. He can be reached at MarkAngler@aol.com.