Woods and waters: Government decisions make it easier for development at wildlife’s expense

It is difficult to keep up with everything political that affects our natural environment. It seems that every time I blink a legislator introduces a new bill that would seek to plunder the natural splendor that we enjoy.

Several Republican-sponsored bills now pending in the Pennsylvania House and Senate would ease the way for additional Marcellus shale gas, coal mining and other development. According to the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission and the Pennsylvania Game Commission, and a host of sportsmen and conservation groups, this “easing” would be at the expense of endangered and threatened species, as well as naturally-reproduced trout. That would be my take on the situation, also.

All hunters, anglers, hikers and lovers of the outdoors should make note of these bills and take appropriate action.

HB 1576 and SB 1047 — collectively called the Endangered Species Coordination Act — would add an unnecessary layer of legislative oversight to the process by which endangered or threatened species are listed by the Pennsylvania Game Commission or the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission. Of particular concern to trout anglers, including this writer, is that the same would apply to the listing of newly identified naturally-reproducing “wild” trout streams.

The oversight would be in the form of the Independent Regulatory Review Commission - a five-member board. Four members (with 3-year terms) are appointed by legislative leaders and one is appointed by the governor. The IRRC typically interacts with the agencies and parties involved to accomplish what they call the “best regulatory balance.” This includes the expected economic impact on the public and private sector. Under provisions of the bills, the non-scientific IRRC also gets to decide what data is acceptable. Can you envision how this will play out? Pennsylvania is the only state with an IRRC.

After a period of two years, SB 1047 would delist all currently state-listed endangered and threatened species (more than 60) if their status could not be proven to the yet unknown standards of the IRRC. House version of the bill has been amended to remove this provision.

It appears to me that the language in the bill leans toward eliminating all state-listed species unless “the species is in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range.” Of course that is not the purpose of state-listed species. Identification and proper protection at the state level hopefully would keep the species from becoming threatened or endangered at the federal level.

It has been alleged that the gas industry actually wrote these bills. The true answer will likely never be known, but I will say that these bills read like — whatever industry wants, let’s put it in this bill.

Have our commissions abused their power? (A better question might be ‘Have our legislators abused our trust?’) In the last five years the Fish and Boat Commission has added 13 species to the state endangered and threatened category and de-listed 11. The Game Commission has added just three species in the last 10 years.

Those organizations opposing the legislation include the Pennsylvania Council of Trout Unlimited, the PA Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs and the PA Trappers Association, as well as the state chapters of Pheasants Forever, Quality Deer Management Association, National Wild Turkey Federation and the Izaak Walton League. The Audubon Society, the Sierra Club, the PA Forest Coalition, Penn Future and several other conservation/environmental organizations also oppose the bills.

It is no surprise that these bills are supported by the Marcellus Shale Coalition, the Pennsylvania Builders Association, the Pennsylvania Independent Oil & Gas Association, the Associated Petroleum Industries of PA and the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry.

According to Sam Denisco, vice president of government affairs for the Chamber, “[The bills] strike an appropriate balance between effective threatened and endangered species management and economic development,” he said.

Industry likes that word “balance.” Trust me, there already is a so-called “balance” and the environment suffers every day because of it. Do we want to make it worse?

I was somewhat surprised to see that the Unified Sportsmen of Pennsylvania and the State Camp Lessee’s Association were supporting these bills. I interviewed leaders from both groups. Other than repeating the industry lines of needed transparency, accountability and balance, the groups had little to offer in the way of logic for their positions. The USP news release rambles on about mountain lions and it is clear that SCLA has a beef with the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, not the PGC or the PFBC.

There already is a very transparent process, involving public comment, one that both commissions go through to list or delist a threatened or endangered species or for the PFBC to list a new wild trout stream.

Carl Roe, the former Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Game Commission, expressed concern that the legislation also ignores the fact that both Commissions now routinely provide two public notices and opportunities to comment on proposed listings and delisting of threatened and endangered species as well as two separate votes by the boards of each respective commission.

According to Brian Wagner, the President of the Pennsylvania Council of Trout Unlimited, “The current process for designating wild trout streams is rigorous and transparent and considers public input. It is rigorous in that data are obtained via well established, scientific sampling methods, and designations are based on stringent technical criteria, including numbers of trout, biomass, and size classes represented. This rigorous, scientific process results in yes or no answers – either a stream meets the criteria for designation as one of the classes of wild trout waters, or it does not.”

Richard Martin, founder of the Forest Coalition had this to say about the bills.

“Politicians pushing these two bills claim that it’s merely ‘checks and balances.’ In reality, the bill is designed to allow political considerations to second-guess the sound science of the biologists from the Game Commission and Fish & Boat Commission. Those agencies have the experts; I expect that few, if any, legislators or IRRC members have PhD’s in Biology and Zoology,”

Stan Kotala, of Juniata Valley Audubon Society likened the bills to asking an insurance company for a second opinion as to whether you need an operation or not.

Of particular concern in this entire process is our own Senator Corman. I find it difficult to believe that the majority of his constituents — the readers of this column - would want wild trout streams and endangered or threatened species not afforded the protection that they deserve. Based on Corman’s questioning at the January 10, Senate hearing in Indiana and the fact that he has received over $91,000 in campaign contributions from the oil and gas industry, I think I know which way he is leaning. Let him know how you feel about this issue — hold his feet to the fire — and then we will see how he votes.

Do not take my word for about these bills or Senator Corman’s intentions — conduct your own investigation. In the end, I think that you will agree with me.