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Senate DCNR Budget Hearing: 26.8% Of State Forest Land Leased For Natural Gas Drilling Was Returned To DCNR Undeveloped Due To Low Natural Gas Prices

On March 3, the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources reported 67,000 acres or 26.8 percent of the 251,000 acres of State Forest land leased for natural gas drilling, including 138,866 acres of shale gas leases from 2008 and 2010, have been returned to the agency undeveloped primarily due to very low gas prices.

Of the 67,000 acres returned to the agency, 26,156 acres were returned by one drilling company-- Anadarko in 2016 for non-performance.

In addition to the 251,233 acres of natural gas leases on State Forest land, DCNR has  7,395 acres of submerged land leases, 3,319 acres of old leases in State Parks and 69,456 acres of underground gas storage area leases.

DCNR Secretary Cindy Adams Dunn added only 35 percent of the leased land has been drilled and produced.  This has resulted in a significant reduction in royalties coming into the Oil and Gas Lease Fund which supports agency operations.

Other major issues covered during the hearing included--

-- $1 Billion In State Parks, Forest Maintenance Needs, Same Kinds Of Needs In Local Parks: In response to a question from Sen. Santarsiero (D-Bucks), Minority Chair of the Senate Environmental Committee, about infrastructure needs, Dunn said DCNR has identified about $1 billion of needed maintenance and safety repairs in State Parks and Forests.  She said much of the current infrastructure was built starting with the Civil Conservation Corps in the 1930 and through the 1960s and 1970s, so it’s no surprise there significant bills coming due right now.  She said the Restore Pennsylvania initiative will certainly help with the $1 billion backlog.  Dunn said local communities are experiencing the same sorts of issues for the same reasons-- the age of the infrastructure in place-- and they depend on DCNR for grants to fix their systems.  Dunn added if we don’t make these investments, it will reduce the economic return communities get from these important facilities and Pennsylvania’s tourist reputation could suffer.  She said good local park can help enhance a neighborhood, but a rundown park can also bring it down.  Click Here for more on $1 billion backlog.

-- State & Local Parks Contribute $2.8 Billion To Economy, Support 2,500 Jobs: In response to a question from Sen. Steve Santarsiero (D-Bucks) about the return on the state’s investment in State Parks and Forests, Dunn ran through a list of economic impact stats--  Outdoor Recreation Business Association found outdoor recreation in Pennsylvania generates $29 billion annually to the state’s economy and supports 250,000 jobs and is fifth in the nation. State Parks alone generate $1.2 billion annually for the economy and supports 13,000 jobs.  Local parks generate $1.6 billion annually and support 12,500 jobs.  Heritage Areas generate $2.3 billion annually and support 26,000 jobs.  Forest products generate $19 billion, part of which comes from State Forests. In addition, DCNR supports the forest industry with technical assistance, help with forest pests and help with markets. Dunn added this does not include benefits to the quality of life and wellness.  If you look at the whole state budget as $1, she said, the benefits derived from the investments in State Parks and Forests, local recreation and the forest industry all come from the two-fifths of one penny that represents DCNR’s budget.    Click Here for a list of economic, environmental, wellness benefits from PA Land Trust Association.

-- There Is Now One Ranger For 11,000 Acres: In response to a question from Sen. Gene Yaw (R-Lycoming), Majority Chair of the Senate Environmental Committee about why DCNR was asking for 25 more State Forest Rangers and State Park staff when they have 57 vacancies now,  Dunn said one ranger now has to cover 11,000 acres and State Parks staff and rangers are frequently called on by first responders to help local communities.  It was also pointed out DCNR has 1,200 full-time and 1,200 part-time employees and you would expect a few vacancies among 2,400 employees.  In addition, each time a position is filled it frequently opens up another position in the agency because 80 percent of the positions are filled from within the ranks.  New positions obviously would increase the number of filled positions overall.

-- DCNR Takes Leadership Role In Riparian Buffers: Sen. Gene Yaw (R-Lycoming), current chair of the interstate Chesapeake Bay Commission, asked what DCNR’s major role is in the Chesapeake Bay cleanup.  Dunn said DCNR stepped up to lead the forested riparian buffers initiative because in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Phase III Plan identified it as a primary practice needed to cleanup streams in Pennsylvania. DCNR also has a lot of connections with local forest partners to implement the buffer program, pointing out the agency name used to include “Forests and Waters.”  Later in the hearing she itemized just a few projects DCNR has implemented on the ground with local partners and noted local entrepreneurs are getting involved in buffers, along with the PA Infrastructure Investment Authority which also helps with funding.  Dunn said the agency has also prioritized buffer projects with some of its existing funding.  Click Here for more.

Sen. Yaw said the problems we have with the Chesapeake Bay are south of Harrisburg and mainly in Lancaster County.  He said that’s not their fault it’s just the way it is. He said the state needs to put the money spent on forest buffers in the areas where they are needed.  Dunn said DCNR has put $500,000 into Lancaster County for forest buffers, but wants to also continue the momentum on buffers statewide.

Note: Several times Sen. Yaw has said in various forums the area he wants to focus on in terms of complying with Chesapeake Bay water pollution reduction requirements is south of Harrisburg because that’s where the problem is.

[DEP’s data-driven Chesapeake Bay Watershed Implementation Plan broke the 43 Bay Watershed counties into four tiers each responsible for 25 percent of the water pollution problem.

[Data shows 50 percent of the problem can be found in Tier 1 and 2 counties: Cumberland, Dauphin, Franklin, Lancaster, Lackawanna Lebanon and York counties.

[Another 25 percent of the problem comes from Adams, Bedford, Centre, Columbia, Huntingdon, Lycoming, Mifflin, Northumberland, Perry and Snyder counties.

[The final 25 percent comes from Berks, Blair, Bradford, Cambria, Cameron, Carbon, Chester, Clearfield, Clinton, Elk, Fulton, Indiana, Jefferson, Juniata, Luzerne, McKean, Montour, Potter, Schuylkill, Somerset, Sullivan, Susquehanna, Tioga, Union, Wayne and Wyoming.]

-- Lackawanna River Good Example Of How A River Can Be Turned Around:  In response to Sen. John Blake’s (D-Lackawanna) noting the Lackawanna River was named Pennsylvania’s 2020 River of the Year, Dunn said the river is a good example of how improving water quality has turned it around into a real community economic and recreational asset with the state investments and the community working together. Sen. Blake said he wasn’t even allowed to go near the river as a child and now it’s a triple-A trout stream. Click Here for more.

Sen. David Argall (R-Schuylkill) made similar “come back” comment related to communities like Jim Thorpe in his district which went from a dying town to now having problems finding parking for all the visitors thanks to investments in recreation facilities and cleaning up rivers and streams.

Sen. Wayne Langerholc (R-Bedford) added comments on how investments in eliminating abandoned mine drainage have made a dramatic difference in his district and places like Johnstown where clean streams and new recreation projects are bringing people back into the area and making a real economic difference.  He said people are concerned we are at a tipping point where if we don’t continue these efforts the streams could decline again.  He said he would hate to see any backsliding.  Click Here for information on reauthorization of the federal Abandoned Mine Reclamation fee.

-- DCNR Leading By Example On Climate, Sustainability Initiatives:  In response to a question from Sen. John Blake (D-Lackawanna) about initiatives DCNR is undertaking to address climate and sustainability issues, Dunn said she named a Director of Applied Climate Science as a lead on climate issues within the agency.  She pointed out DCNR has 4,700 buildings which presents an opportunity to reduce their carbon footprint and reduce electrical bills.  DCNR has been moving to renewable energy with 27 installations and will get 50 percent of the electricity it uses from renewable sources by 2022, built 17 LEED energy efficient green buildings and is converting 25 percent of agency’s 1,600 vehicles to electrics or hybrids. Dunn added with 40 million visitors to State Parks alone, there’s an opportunity to demonstrate and educate the public about sustainable practices they can take. Click Here for more.  Click Here for green community parks.

-- Many Opportunities for Carbon Sequestration/Carbon Capture: Sen. Sharif Street (D-Philadelphia) asked about DCNR’s role in geological and natural sequestration of carbon to address the climate change issue related to legislation he has proposed.  Dunn said DCNR is involved in the issue in several ways.  For example, if DCNR achieves its goal of planting 95,000 acres of forested riparian buffers, it would sequester over 5 million tons of carbon along with helping to improve water quality.  DCNR sustainably manages 2.2 million acres of State Forests which is a significant contributor to carbon sequestration.  She noted there are also opportunities on land owned by local governments and on business campuses to increase natural sequestration.  Many local community tree planting projects are also supported by DCNR’s TreeVitalize Program.  She noted there are other benefits of trees, pointing to some studies that have shown streets with trees can reduce temperatures by 22 degrees on hot summer days.

Dunn said there are huge opportunities for geologic sequestration of carbon dioxide and did studies in 2007 and 2008 on looking at the carbon capture issues.  Past oil and gas and other mineral extractions and geologic formations located in Pennsylvania present carbon storage opportunities.  What is needed is the infrastructure-- pipelines, as one example-- to get the carbon dioxide from where it is captured to where it can be stored as well as solving the legal and property issues involved.

-- Trail Gaps Getting Filled In, But Many More To Go:  Sen. Judy Schwank (D-Berks) pointed to the tremendous benefits of the PA Heritage Areas Program, in particular for engaging local communities and organizations to develop recreational and tourism resources. Dunn said the 12 PA Heritage Areas have been particularly helpful in completing trail gaps.  She noted very few projects create the kind of economic benefits as completing long trails through multiple communities.  DCNR identified the top 10 trail gaps last year of the several hundred trail gaps across the state.  Dunn said she has been involved in closing gaps in four major trails, adding many of the easier gaps have been filled and the tougher and more expensive ones remain.

-- Closing Gaps In ATV Trails: In response to a question by Sen. Elder Vogel (R-Beaver) about ATV use on DCNR lands and gaps in trails, Dunn said DCNR is doing a revision of its ATV Policy to put more emphasis on closing gaps in trails.  She said DCNR has a preference for dedicated ATV trails and has supported destination ATV parks.  DCNR has also worked with PennDOT and local communities on gaps that require riders to travel on a road for a short distance to get back on a trail. Click Here for more on the ATV policy.

-- Presque Isle State Park Dramatically Affected By Changing Lake Conditions: Sen. Dan Laughlin (R-Erie) said conditions on Lake Erie, like Lake levels 30 inches above normal, are having a detrimental effect on Presque Isle State Park and said he would like help urging the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to look at alternative ways to protect the peninsula.  Dunn said the damage to the park has been significant, including having one beach washed out by the wave action because the Lake did not freeze over again during the winter.  She said other issues like just cleaning up the debris in parking lots and beaches after the storms forces DCNR to rearrange its infrastructure dollars to address those issues. 

-- Tariffs Hit PA Hardwood Industry Hard, Prices Have Dropped By One-Third: In response to a question from Sen. Mario Scavello (R-Monroe) about the drop in revenue from timber sales, Dunn said DCNR has worked very closely with the forest products industry and  Pennsylvania is the number one producer of hardwoods in the United States, noting our hardwoods are revered all over the world.  She said the Tariff War with China has hurt sales, but even though that issue is being resolved-- somewhat-- it’s still a matter of winning back those markets.  In addition, the demand for hardwood products is changing with the change in generations, moving from darker woods--like cherry and walnut-- to lighter woods like maple and poplar.  But market prices have dropped, for example for cherry went from $1.12 a board-foot and now it’s 39 cents a board-foot.  Dunn said DCNR works closely with the Hardwoods Development Council to try to expand hardwood manufacturing.  She noted there are also workforce issues saying there are only about 2,000 loggers left in Pennsylvania.  Getting young people to go into logging is a challenge.

-- Lyme Disease Pushes Back On Efforts To Get More People Outdoors: In response to a question by Sen. Wayne Langerholc (R-Bedford) on what DCNR is doing to combat Lyme Disease, like spraying for ticks, Dunn said DCNR takes the issue seriously for both its workers and visitors.  She said the most claims for Workers Compensation from its employees results from Lyme Disease.  Lyme Disease has also been a countervailing force working against efforts to bring more people outdoors for recreation for health and economic benefits.  Dunn said they coordinate with the Department of Health in educating the public about ticks and Lyme Disease through signage and other public education initiatives.  She said they supply their own staff with sprays and infused clothing to help provide protection.  DCNR is not doing any spraying for ticks.  In addition, other measures are taken, like managing hiking trails to keep the brush back so it is less likely visitors will come in contact with ticks. Click Here for more on Lyme Disease.

-- Fighting Invasive Bugs & Plants Are Number One Forest Issue:  In response to a question by Sen. Elder Vogel (R-Beaver) about the response to spotted lanternfly, Dunn said DCNR’s Forest Pest Division is very involved in research into natural enemies to the spotted lanternfly.  One natural control they are looking at is a particular kind of small parasitoid wasp that kills them.  In terms of managing their own forests, she said they are doing things like getting rid of the tree of heaven, which is a preferred home for the spotted lanternfly.  If you ask foresters what their number one issue is, managing invasive insects and plant invasive species are at the top of the list. Click Here for more on spotted lanternfly.

Other Fun Facts

Other random facts brought out during the hearing--

-- Sen. Mario Scavello (R-Monroe)-- 35 percent of Monroe County land is now protected through combined county, local and state efforts and on a clear day you can see the Catskill Mountains from Big Pocono State Park.

Click Here to watch a video of the hearing.   Click Here for DCNR written testimony.

For more information on state parks and forests and recreation in Pennsylvania, visit DCNR’s website, Click Here to sign up for the Resource newsletter, Visit the Good Natured DCNR Blog,  Click Here for upcoming events, Click Here to hook up with DCNR on other social media-- Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Flickr.


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[Posted: March 4, 2020]


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