Natural Gas vs. Penn Forests: As the Natural Gas Industry Finds More and More Resources in Our Nation's Forests, Difficult Choices between Economy and Environment Must Be Made

Article excerpt

Roy Siefert pilots his Chevrolet Blazer over the snow-caked roads of the Tioga State Forest. It's midwinter, and a blanket of snow and cold hangs over this wooded tract in northern Pennsylvania. But in the midst of the maples, ash, and pines is a hub of activity.

Siefert, District Forester for the 165,000-acre Tioga Forest, is checking on a network of pipelines, compressor stations, and gas wells that has transformed a portion of the woodlot into an industrial site. "This is just like a little city," he says.

Exploration of the Marcellus Shale Formation, the nation's largest reserve of natural gas, is transforming the landscape of Pennsylvania. And the venerable Penn's Woods are not immune to development.

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So far, 700,000 acres of state forest land are under lease to natural gas companies. Estimates suggest that as many as 12,000 wells will be drilled on state forests over the next 20 years.

The Marcellus Shale Formation runs underneath most of the Keystone State, and so far energy companies have concentrated their activities mostly in the state's northern tier. Industry experts predict that drilling will last for more than 50 years. And along with development on private lands, state-owned property is already seeing its fair share of drilling.

Tioga State Forest has 45,000 acres under lease for gas development, the highest concentration of gas drilling among state forests--so far. For example, in a tract of the Tioga near the college town of Mansfield, the industrial development takes up 185 acres of land. All of this development has brought with it an industrial infrastructure for long-term gas development. There is little question that the state forest system, like much of Pennsylvania, is at a crossroads.

"Some changes will be permanent and some will be negative," says John Quigley, the former Secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR). "How will we strike a balance? Can we preserve the public lands?"

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In 2008 Pennsylvania used leases of state forest lands to close a budget gap. Those leases represent the majority of gas exploration currently underway. And it has fundamentally changed how Tioga's staffers are working, Siefert says. About half of his job duties are now related to Marcellus shale. "It's really a big juggling job," he says.

Most of the development in the Tioga woods is occurring on land that was once a strip mine. That factor has allowed the forest agency to minimize the need to take away virgin forest in favor of gas infrastructure. However, there is a decidedly industrial feel to the gas lands. Two drilling rigs tower over the woods, and tanker trucks hauling water to drill sites run at a constant pace over the dirt roads.

Even after the rigs are gone, 10-foot-high well heads will remain, along with looming storage towers. A compressor station, housing eight 4,000-horsepower engines, hums constantly. "This is an industrial facility," Siefert says.

Over the next year, gas exploration will enter a second phase in another portion of the Tioga Forest. This new exploration will occur south of the Pennsylvania Grand Canyon, an 800-foot-deep canyon cut by glaciers during an ice age. The area, the most heavily used portion of the forest, is rich in recreation opportunities. Roads there are groomed for snowmobiling, and there are endless cross-country ski opportunities. The 62-mile-long Pine Creek Rail Trail, a popular hiking and mountain-bike destination, cuts through some of the most scenic portions of the woods.

"It's our highest recreation use area and one of our most scenic viewsheds," Siefert remarks.

In the heart of the woods, gas companies are clearing a roadway to access well sites that will be drilled in coming years. Though not visible from any highways, the drill sites and roads will become part of the scenery that hikers and snow-mobilers see while venturing" deep into the woods. …